Back to Diane Nahl Home Page
Back to Table of Contents of the User-Centered Revolution Article

The ACS Information Unit

In the field of library and information services, Kuhlthau has consistently called attention to the neglect of the affective domain:

While information seeking is recognized as a cognitive process, the affective process is rarely considered as interacting with the cognitive as part of a whole experience. Incorporation of the affective...is essential for fully understanding the experience of information seeking, but it has not yet occurred on any significant scale. ... There is much we do not know about how individuals construe and reconstrue during information seeking. These studies do indicate, however, that the process is not purely cognitive. Feelings of anxiety are prevalent early in the search, and levels of confidence increase considerably during the process. ... While it may not be necessary to dwell on feelings in information-seeking situations, it is necessary to incorporate an awareness of affect into our professional construct of information seeking. Until the triad of thinking, feeling, and acting is fully accepted as the nature of information seeking, mediation [i.e., instructional intervention] is likely to be fragmented and limited (78) (pp.112, 117, 127).

Kuhlthau astutely points to the need for information professionals to become more systematic and more holistic in their approach to instructing users by addressing affective and cognitive domains.

To this must be added attention to the sensorimotor domain of hand-eye coordination and action. In an effort to express this connectivity of function between the three behavioral domains, a three-dimensional model of learning information structure was proposed by Jakobovits and Nahl Jakobovits, 1990 #142 emphasizing the principle that every information skill, from the smallest to the most general, is constructed from affective, cognitive, and sensorimotor behaviors acting together as a unit within a hierarchical behavioral system:

The instructional significance of the ACS information unit is that teaching people to become searchers, or helping searchers to be better searchers, involves the management of three different types of human memory -- affective, cognitive, and sensorimotor. Affective memory is required for acquiring affective information skills, just as cognitive memory is required for learning cognitive information skills. The same is true for sensorimotor memory. Advances in research and practice will reveal the characteristics of each memory and how these may be applied to curriculum design (p. 460).

The suggestion that information teaching and services adopt a behaviorally integrated design broadens and deepens the user-centered consciousness of information professionals since it involves a holistic orientation towards users. Holistic user-centeredness provides "a unifying framework for preparing curricula in any subject" and "represents a shift from impressionistic instruction that is based on expert knowledge alone to an approach based on both formal analysis of learner needs and expert knowledge" (80) (p. 74). The permanence of the user-centered revolution may depend on productive research and development of a comprehensive theory of user behavior in the information environment.

Longitudinal Study of Information Seekers

In a series of studies on information seeking from the user's perspective, Kuhlthau (81) explored the cognitive and affective aspects of users' experiences in information seeking situations. She points to a gap between how searchers think and feel, on one hand, and on the other, how information providers think and organize information. On the one hand, the system's pattern is based on certainty and order; on the other, the user's pattern is based on uncertainty and confusion. Information thus has a mechanistic as well as a human dimension. Users assimilate information from various sources and transform it into meaning by constructing a personal point-of-view and creating new knowledge that is shareable with others (81) (p.361). Her review of the research on information seeking from the user's perspective includes the following highlights:

(1) Most studies conducted in the past are from the perspective of the system (82).

(2) There is a new interest in moving away from system-oriented research towards a focus on users of information, especially on their problem-solving and decision-making behaviors (83).

(3) A fresh approach provides a cognitive science point-of-view that takes into account the user's thinking processes and evaluations of the information retrieved (84).

(4) Users interpret information in terms of personal life characteristics and these are likely to be as important as system considerations in information retrieval (85);(86).

(5) To understand how people find and use information, we need to combine their cognitive maps of the searching environment with a model of the system's design features (87).

(6) Users' ability to articulate requests to the information system depends on their level of understanding of their problem. Since their level of awareness of their information need may be initially low, they may have little success in specifying what is needed (87).

(7) Users' queries involve at least four levels of awareness of information need: "visceral" (below the threshold of awareness), "conscious" (aware of the need but not yet formulated in specific terms), "formalized" (explicitly expressed), and "compromised" (translated into the terms of the system) (88).

Kuhlthau emphasizes that an information search "is a process of construction which involves the whole experience of the person, feelings as well as thoughts and actions" (81)(p.362). To put it more specifically,

A model representing the user's sense-making process of information seeking ought to incorporate three realms of activity: physical, actual actions taken; affective, feelings experienced; and cognitive, thoughts concerning both process and content... While purely cognitive conceptions of information need are adequate for some research purposes, consideration of the affective dimension of users' problems is necessary to address a wider, holistic view of information use (81), (p.362).

Kuhlthau argues for a new "dynamic" perspective on the searcher's world. An information need becomes "the gap between the user's knowledge about the problem or topic and what the user needs to know to solve the problem" (81) (p.362). She argues her perspective through "personal construct theory" originated by personality theorist George Kelly (89). This cognitive approach describes how new information is assimilated, beginning with "confusion" brought about by "inconsistencies and incompatibilities" between the new information and currently held constructs. Doubting the validity of the information may follow confusion, and experienced threat may lead one to discard the new information. Or, alternately, users may attempt to incorporate new information by constructing new hypotheses that allow a more inclusive construct system.

Kuhlthau's focus on longitudinal studies represents an interest in the dynamic evolution of an information seeking problem within the personality parameters of a user. To obtain data on this private arena of the searcher's world, Kuhlthau's subjects recorded in writing, their feelings, thoughts, and actions related to their library research project. They also kept logs in which they recorded sources they used, procedures they went through for finding sources, and their evaluation of their usefulness. In addition, they filled out a questionnaire that asked about their perceptions in six areas of library activity: topic selection, research assignments, focus formulation, procedures for gathering information, frequency of library use, and role of mediators. Taped interviews were conducted in which students drew flowcharts describing the process they followed.

With this intensive and longitudinal data on 20 college students, Kuhlthau developed a six-stage model of the research process. The model was verified with 385 college students at 11 universities with three data points in time: initiation of the research assignment, its midpoint, and its closure. Her observations draw an affective progression in the search process from initial states of uncertainty with vagueness to later stages of optimism, confidence, and satisfaction with more narrowed, focused, and synthesized information (81) (p.367). Kuhlthau notes three broad psychological effects: (1) interest in a topic increases as a search progresses; (2) the topic changes as information is gathered; and (3) a central theme evolves as information is gathered. Her conclusion on the importance of the affective component is explicit:

By neglecting to address affective aspects, information specialists are overlooking one of the main elements driving information use (81) (p. 370).

The primacy of affect has been known in education and psychology, and only recently has come under consideration in information environments.

The Taxonomic Model

The taxonomic model has been applied by Metoyer-Duran to form three-dimensional profiles of idealized types of information gatekeepers user52to6739.gif">(74)user52to6740.gif">. For example, the "Broker Profile," the "Information Professional Profile," or the "Unaffiliated Gatekeeper Profile." This last refers to individuals who think of themselves as ordinary people, rather than innovators, yet they respond out of "personal conscience, or a sense of social obligation, to community members who turn to them for information or referral to help resolve basic problems (74)  (p.336). The information behaviors that occur within the Unaffiliated profile are ranked at a low level in all three information domains in comparison to the Professional profile. In the affective domain, information professionals and managers have a facilitating function while conservative community members are seen as having impeding function since they tend to express opposition to innovation. Metoyer-Duran's analysis is of interest to the user-centered paradigm since it encourages a view of information seeking behavior as culturally influenced, and interprets it within a social and communicative perspective.

Another attempt at integrating the cognitive and affective domains of users is the taxonomic approach to information seeking behavior representing this author's research (20, 71, 79, 90). The level of integration of the three domains may be seen in the following example (80)  (p. 75):

These three behavioral domains are interdependent, so that every affective behavior is accompanied by related cognitive and sensorimotor behavior. For example, a student who gets an assignment from a professor suddenly has a new goal: to get the assignment done by the due date. Then the student must cognitively plan how to accomplish it. And finally execute the required steps. Within this global process, many sub-goals and intermediate plans and acts occur. For example, "Search PsycLIT for journal articles on the topic" is a sub-goal. Within this, there are sub-sub-goals of selecting search terms, planning search statements, and entering them on the keyboard.

This approach contrasts with the profile model used by (74) primarily in the specificity with which the information behaviors are identified. The affective-cognitive integration needs to be applied at both the general level (as in Metoyer-Duran) and the micro-descriptive level, as for instance in the following illustrations (91)  (p.7):

1) in the affective domain: feeling excitement at a discovery; experiencing stress from doubt; being disappointed after a search; persistence in an effort; taking care to be thorough; being pleased with a quotation; sticking to a plan; overcoming technophobia.

2) in the cognitive domain: devising a search protocol; deciding to retain a title; summarizing an article; noting a connection; evaluating relevance; rank ordering preferences; thinking of a productive keyword; using correct command statements.

3) in the sensorimotor domain: walking to locations; discriminating between symbols; hand-eye coordination; note taking; noticing presence or absence; copying precisely; operating a terminal; following a map; alphabetizing; following range numbers and guide words; finding information on screen displays.

An integrated approach in the user-centered paradigm involves all three behavioral domains at the general and specific levels.

The Novice Searcher's World

The taxonomic cataloging of user behaviors in information environments, also referred to as "the matrix approach (92), promotes the user-centered paradigm by facilitating the identification of skills and errors that populate the searcher's world. In a detailed study of some of the psychological factors that are present in the searcher's dynamic world (19, 20),  seven environmental layers were identified. Figure 1 illustrates the complex information retrieval environment of the novice. First, the search query, that provides an overall context since it is the ultimate goal that motivates the beginning and end of a search effort. Second, the subject headings and indexes, that limit the universe of searchable topics. Third, the search software, that imposes particular requirements for operation. Fourth, the point-of-use instructions and online Help, that provide suggestions and examples to facilitate problem solving or trouble shooting. Fifth, the sensorimotor environment, that determines how users interact with the screen and the keyboard. Sixth, the cognitive environment of users' reasoning processes and the formulation of search strategies. Seventh, the central affective environment populated by users' emotions and motives.

These seven environmental layers envelop searchers and create a dynamic world that the user-centered approach needs to address, individually as well as globally. For example, an attempt was made to address the affective and cognitive environment of searchers through point-of-use instructions that were specifically written to anticipate common problems experienced by novice searchers using a CD-ROM database (20). As a guide to developing the language of the instructions, an affective taxonomy was used that lists instructional speech acts at three levels. First, the orienting level, intended "to reduce anger and maintain reality check." For example: "telling what is reasonable to expect," affects whether a searcher is being realistic vs. being disappointed and "telling how long it takes (seconds or minutes)" helps alleviate impatience due to unfamiliarity. Second, the advising level, "counteracts anxiety and builds positive attitudes." For example: "giving feedback (what will happen is...)" helps alleviate anxiety and builds confidence and "rank ordering options or strategies" reduces fear of failure and builds feelings of trust. Third, the reassuring level, is intended "to overcome resistance and encourage acceptance." For example: "affirming principle that users are never at fault" eases acceptance by reducing resistance and "reinforcing user's perceived self-efficacy" helps users overcome feelings of helplessness and leaves them feeling empowered. Taking care to orient, advise, and reassure novice users helps reduce the psychological cost of operating in challenging information environments.

Affective Management Principles

Other features of the information environment have been identified in support of the affective needs of users. In one study, four principles are stated. First, affective knowing asserts that "a procedure is not fully understood until it is performed for some desired goal (56)  (p.25). In other words, users learn most when given the freedom to practice searching for topics they have some interest in. Second, social facilitation refers to the strengthening of motivation and persistence when the search is performed jointly with a peer or within a small group. Third, affective feedback calls for "manifesting the affective reactions of individuals to themselves" through an attitude scale that visibly shows where the raters are in relation to their own ideal. This activity "clarifies for them the distance they need to cover to master target skills (56)  (p.27). Another method is to help learners correct their errors in feedback sessions to facilitate their continuous striving for improvement. Fourth, validation is the process of orienting, advising, and reassuring users so that they can more easily cope with the challenges of the information environment.

Questioning Behavior of Novice Searchers

In the information retrieval literature, user questions are considered to be equivalent to topical information needs or research queries user52to6761.gif">(93, 3, 94). However, the search process plunges users into another parallel domain of information needs, i.e., they need information about searching itself. "The basic underlying assumptions...are that question generation arises from an information need and that questioning is a behavioral act to satisfy that need.(95)  (p. 86).

An interesting finding about the needs of searchers was reported by Nahl user52to6766.gif">(90)user52to6767.gif"> who tape recorded and analyzed every question that seven novice searchers asked a human monitor during six hours while searching a full text database for information on their own topics. More than a thousand questions were asked at an average of one per minute. One-third of these user questions were in the category seeking confirmation, defined as a question that contains the answer, so that the monitor always responds affirmatively (e.g., "Is it 3 comma k?" or "So now I want to combine both of them?"). In other words, searchers knew the answers but needed confirmation in order to proceed comfortably. As the authors point out,

From a system-centered point of view it might appear that seeking confirmation questions are superfluous, since no new cognitive information is provided. However, from a user-centered view-point it is assumed that confirmation questions are essential to help searchers persevere instead of quitting prematurely. Searchers need continuous motivation to keep postponing quitting. Confirmation seeking is simply a method for providing searchers with this continuous motivation. It is thus affectively essential , even if cognitively superfluous. user52to6768(90 ) (p. xx16).

Other types of questions included formatting input (e.g., "So what do I press" or "Do I have to leave a space?"), search strategy (e.g., "Is this something I'd want to truncate?" or "What if I just want a picture and this database doesn't have pictures?"), and personal chat (e.g., "Do most people try to keep up with reading all of that [full text]?" or "Can you imagine a bookless library?"). The authors point to the existence of

Some affective system functions ... in the form of confirmation requests presented by the system after a command is given, e.g., after issuing a quit application command, the system may present a question, 'Really quit? No [Yes].' Others include notifying searchers of what the system is doing during processing time, e.g., 'Searching...' and 'Please be patient, this takes awhile' and 'I'm reversing the order of your search terms for a faster search'; and warnings about the possible negative consequences of a search act, e.g., EDUCATION is a long search.' (90) (p. 25).

In this study, users spontaneously asked a long series of questions throughout their searches that pertained to many aspects of navigating in the system environment. The importance of feelings in the search process became evident when the transcripts of the search session were analyzed:

The analysis of these naturally occurring questions reveals not only the reasoning process of these novice searchers but also the dynamics of feelings, which indexes the users' hesitations, desire for confirmation, avoidances, fears, and the like. These interact with the user's knowledge and reasoning to determine the outcome of their external actions. For example, novices sometimes quit a search prematurely without obtaining needed information, when it is easily obtainable through a simple modification in strategy. The present data reveal that information need is not unitary, instead, there exists a stream of hierarchically organized information needs (90)  (p. xx).

Affectively-oriented questions primarily dealt with users' need for continuing motivation to carry out their intentions in the moment-by-moment decision-making that constitutes a search. If this motivation wanes, users terminate searches. The human monitor's responses provided the reassurance that searchers were interpreting the situation correctly and performing the right move. Cognitively-oriented questions dealt with users' need to understand results and select search steps. Sensorimotor questions dealt primarily with users' need to format input with the correct search syntax and grammar. In both cases, the monitor's answers supplied the missing information to enable searchers to progress. Nahl and Tenopir call for the development of "affectively-oriented system functions" that are more responsive to users in the area of their greatest needs. An awareness of this principle may already be observed in many systems for novice end-users, such as:

* providing an option for confirmation requests (e.g., "Really quit? No [Yes]", or "Delete file xx N [Y]");

* notifying searchers of what the system is doing during processing time (e.g., "Searching..." or "Connecting... Waiting for reply... Transferring data... 23K out of 35K read... 12 secs. remaining");

* warning about the possible consequences of a search act (e.g., "HISTORY is a long search! Do you wish to specify further?"

As research on users accumulates, a professional knowledge-base will be developed for understanding and serving people's information needs.

Providing a user-centered environment requires an understanding of how users learn and acquire proficiency in information seeking. Three factors have been identified from learning theory that insure the orderly acquisition of affective, cognitive, and sensorimotor skills, namely, "sufficient motivation, active responding, and reinforcement (55).  According to this view, information seeking is a complex behavior that is acquired, to some extent, through the laws of conditioning. Good decisions are automatically reinforced because they lead to positive outcomes. Thus, the sequence of actions that led to the results is strengthened, i.e., it has been added to the learner's repertoire of search behavior skills and is therefore more likely to be repeated as a habit. Positive consequences improve skills, while failures weaken the behavior. The information environment needs to address user failure: "The remedy for negative consequences in online searching is to have workable alternatives to continue the search in a new direction. BI can facilitate this by teaching users how to respond to system error messages, too few or too many "hits," and other searching problems (55, p.77).

Uncertainty and Zones of Intervention

As discussed previously, the importance of the affective information environment is fully recognized and addressed in the work of  (78)  (p.187) who recommends the counseling approach to library services:

The mission of the 1980s was to automate and to network library and information services. Access has been dramatically expanded by automation, networking collections, and databases. Operations for providing information and resources have been streamlined by technological applications. While automating and networking continue to be a priority, the mission of the 1990s, and beyond, calls for services that promote the understanding of ever-increasing amounts of information. A mission of library and information services of the 1990s is to counsel people in the use of resources and information for learning, working, and living. It is no longer sufficient for library and information services merely to provide resources and to offer assistance in the location of materials and information. In the technological age, people require services that counsel them in understanding information and guide them in the process of seeking meaning.

Kuhlthau's central thesis is that vast information pools coupled with rapid technological change engenders unpredictability: "uncertainty is pervasive in the seemingly certain technological environment. The confrontation between the uncertain person and the certain system requires professional intervention. There is a critical need for professional counseling in seeking meaning and understanding in information (78)   (p.187). As pointed out by (49 ) (p.23), Kuhlthau's method is close to Dervin's sense-making approach reviewed above in viewing information seeking as the construction of personal meaning. Cognitive enrichment is preceded by affective uncertainty and followed by affective satisfaction.

Relying on the writings of George Kelly, Jerome Bruner, and S. Vygotsky, Kuhlthau attempts to locate the information search activity within the basic personality structure of the individual. Though Kuhlthau does not use the following specific descriptions, her approach is consistent with this type of behavioral model.

The affective domain drives the information search process through one's awareness of an information need. A person is 'driven' to seek answers, and when information is perceived as personally relevant, it is seized upon by the cognitive domain and thus acquired as one's own. The person is now changed since different thoughts and feelings occur. One's conclusions are different (or re-confirmed and strengthened) and one's outlook or mood has changed. This process of personality involvement with new information includes certain feelings and thoughts which are common or universal as psychological processes. These include feelings of uncertainty, confused thoughts, resistance to new information, anxiety, depression. Individual differences exist in how intense or enduring these processes are, and how well the individual is equipped to cope with challenge and stress.

Kuhlthau recommends various strategies for implementing "a process approach" to information counseling. One important step at the beginning is to help users become aware of the stages of information seeking, especially the reality of uncertainty, confusion, stress, and discouragement. The strategy of "charting" helps users visualize the entire research process, thus making expectations more objective. Seeking meaning is a "constructive process" and ignorance of this process frequently limits choices people make. This fits with the idea that helplessness is a learned habit, or that self-efficacy beliefs are based on habitual modes of explanations in one's thinking and coping strategies. Kuhlthau emphasizes the importance of "conversing" or discussing with users their research steps throughout the process, and not just during an initial consultation period.

Kuhlthau's proposals reinforce Nahl's description of the novice searcher's world as dynamic in both the affective and cognitive domains of behavior. An information need creates a gap between what the user knows and what information is needed to solve a problem (96), and as the information gathering process unfolds, the user's state of mind changes, cognitively and affectively. It is a unique experience in which "the choices along the way are dependent on personal constructs rather than on one universal predictable search for everyone (78, p.9.)  To be valid, user-centered approaches must allow for individualization.

Back to Diane Nahl Home Page
Back to Table of Contents of the User-Centered Revolution Article