Friday, 15 February 2013

The information journey and information ecosystems

Last year, I wrote a short piece for "Designing the search experience". But I didn't write it short enough (!) so it got edited down to a much more focused piece on serendipity. Which I won't reproduce here for copyright reasons (no, I don't get any royalties!). The theme that got cut was on information ecosystems: the recognition that people are encountering and working with information resources across multiple modalities the whole time. And that well designed information resources exploit that, rather than being stand-alone material. OK, so this blog is just digital, but it draws on and refers out to other information resources when relevant!

Here is the text from the cutting room floor...

The information journey presents an abstract view of information interaction from an individual’s perspective. We first developed this framework during work studying patients’ information seeking; the most important point that emerged from that study was the need for validation and interpretation. Finding information is not enough: people also need to be able to assess the reliability of the information (validation) and relate it to their personal situation and needs (interpretation).

This need for validation and interpretation had not been central to earlier information seeking models—possibly because earlier studies had not worked with user groups (such as patients) with limited domain knowledge, nor focused on the context surrounding information seeking. But we discerned these validation and interpretation steps in all of our studies: patients, journalists, lawyers and researchers alike.

The information journey starts when an individual either identifies a need (a gap in knowledge) or encounters information that addresses a latent need or interest. Once a need has been identified, a way to address that need must be determined and acted upon, such as asking the person at the next desk, going to a library, looking “in the world,” or accessing internet resources. On the web, that typically means searching, browsing, and follow trails of “information scent”. Often finding information involves several different resources and activities. These varied sources create an information ecosystem of digital, physical and social resources.

Information encountered during this journey needs to be validated and interpreted. Validation is often a loose assessment of the credibility of the information. Sillence and colleagues highlight important stages in the process: an early and rapid assessment—based on criteria such as the website’s design and whether it appears to be an advertising site—is typically followed by a more deliberate analysis of the information content, such as assessing whether it is consistent with other sources of information.
Interpretation is not usually straightforward. It often involves support from information intermediaries (an important part of the information ecosystem). This is one of the important roles of domain specialists (e.g. doctors and lawyers): working with lay people to interpret the “facts” in the context of the actual, situated needs. Even without help from intermediaries, Sillence & co. describe the lay users of health information in their study as acting like scientists, generating and testing hypotheses as they encountered new information resources, both online and offline. No one information resource is sufficient: online information fits in a broader ecology of information sources which are used together, albeit informally, to establish confidence and build understanding.
The interpretation of information can often highlight further gaps in understanding. So one information need often leads to others. For example, a colleague of mine was recently planning to buy a Bluetooth headset. His initial assumption was that there were only a few suitable headsets on the market, and his aim was simply to identify the cheapest; but it quickly became apparent that there were hundreds of possible headsets, and that he first needed to understand more about their technical specifications and performance characteristics to choose one that suited his needs. A simple information problem had turned into a complex, multi-faceted one. A known item search had turned into an exploratory search, and the activity had turned from fact-finding to sensemaking.

Information resources surround us. We are informavores, consuming and interpreting information across a range of channels. We are participants in huge information ecosystems, and new information interaction technologies need to be designed not just to work well on their own, but to be valuable components of those ecosystems.

Thursday, 14 February 2013

The importance of context (even for recognising family!)

I've been using the face recognition feature in my photograph management software. It was coming up with some suggestions that were pretty impressive (e.g. finding several additional photos that featured my mother, when primed with a few) and some that felt a little spooky (e.g. suggesting that a photo of me was actually of my mother – something that probably none of us wants to admit to, however attractive the parent). But it was also making some inexplicably bizarre suggestions – e.g. that a male colleague might be one of my daughters, or that a wine glass might be a face at all. This recognition technology is getting very sophisticated, but it clearly does not recognise faces in a human-like way!

From a computational perspective, it does not account for context: it identifies and matches features that, in some low-level way, correspond to "face", and it gets that right a lot of the time, identifying real human faces and artificial faces (such as a doll). However, it does not have the background knowledge to do the gender- and age-based reasoning that people naturally do. This makes some of its suggestions seem bizarre. And the fact that it works with low-level features of an image is really exposed when it suggests that a wineglass should be named.

From a human perspective, context also matters in recognition. For most adult faces that were close friends or relations, recognition was generally straightforward, but for children or less familiar people, it was almost impossible to recognise people out of context. The particular software I was using did not allow me to switch easily between detail and context, so there are some faces that are, and will remain, unlabelled, meaning that I won't be able to find them again easily. For example, with context, it was instantly apparent who this small child was: she was sat on her (recognisable) mother's knee, with her big sister at her side. But without that context, she is a small (and slightly uncomfortable-looking) blonde toddler. Context matters.