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User needs and behavior in theory and practice

Over the last 50 years there has been an ongoing process of study of human information behavior which gradually led to the study of a more sophisticated concept of information needs and uses. An abstract from T. D. Wilson’s “Human Information Behavior” provides a short historical outline of the study of human information seeking behavior concept, the start of which traces back to the Royal Society Scientific Information Conference in 1948, and mentions the study of several scholars trying to provide definitions and models of information behavior and information needs.

At the beginning, the search for information dealt mainly with library materials – books, magazines, publications, and the focus of information providers was mainly on the workers of scientific field. In other words, the center of the study was the question of how and which information sources should scientists use and how can those information sources be more useful to scientists. Later studies became more concerned with finding a right definition of the “information need”. According to Dervin, the information need is that which comes out of a fundamental need and which purpose is to satisfy that fundamental need.

In an attempt to find correct answers for the definition of information need scholars focused on the information user who is actually the one having such a need. In the early 1980’s the study of information behavior undertook a person-centered or user-oriented approach replacing a system-centered approach practiced until that time. Among the most significant studies here are the works by Wilson. Wilson proposed an approach to the study of information seeking behavior which takes into account physiological, cognitive and effective needs of the user.

A sense-making approach, proposed by Dervin, provides a triangle model consisting of four elements: situation-gap/bridge-outcome. Both authors are focusing on the user as the center of the problem of defining information behavior and information needs. By 1999 the field of information behavior provides a number of models integrating different findings of previous years and the focus of studies is concerned with more issues than simply satisfaction of the information needs of scientists. A chapter on “Information needs and uses” by Dervin and Nilan provides a step-by-step evolution of system-oriented approach to user-oriented.

A stepping stone for the development of user-centered approach was the realization of the fact that information researched should have a practical use for the user. Therefore, information systems providing such information should have a user with his needs as the focus of such system’s operation. In this light, the authors state argue that there is a need to change information systems so that they would serve clients better – i. e. , should be user-oriented – a notion which incorporates a whole number of aspects of systems operating from the way the information is stored to the need of interactive dialog.

At the same time most studies keep referring to users as systems instead of seeing users as users. Such system-oriented studies use six approaches to evaluate information needs. These approaches include: demand on the system/resources approach (to what degree do users use different information sources), awareness approach, likes-dislikes approach, priorities, community profile, and interests, activities and group membership approaches. Three characteristics are typical for each of the mentioned approaches.

First of all, each of these approaches is limited by some definitions; secondary, system-oriented research provides user with the information which originates in the system world, and not in the user world. And thirdly, even if the system does provide an answer to the user request, it does not necessarily satisfy user needs. On the basis of these shortcomings of the system-oriented study (assumptions and premises of this one are referred to as “traditional”) a change to user-centered approaches (“alternative” assumptions and premises) becomes obvious.

Six categories in which a change from traditional to alternative assumptions should take place are the following: mechanistic, passive vs. constructivist, active users, trans-situationality vs. situationality, atomistic vs. wholistic views of experience, external behavior vs. internal cognitions, chaotic vs. systematic individuality, and quantitative vs. qualitative research. To ease the understanding of both paradigms, the traditional paradigm is the one that answers “what” questions: what systems do people use, what kind of people, etc.

The alternative paradigm is more concerned with “how” questions: how do people use these systems, how do they use their findings, etc. Overall, alternative definitions of information and information needs are better suited to understand users, thus, scholars started using them extensively in their conceptual efforts. Among comprehensive innovations three approaches are outlined as those that take into account most of the elements of alternative paradigm. The user-values approach focuses on the user’s problem.

This approach deals with identifying different types of problems users might have and correspondingly classifying information into categories such as users may need when faced with each specific information problem. Another approach is previously mentioned sense-making approach designed by Dervin. Her situation-gap-use model implies that a person is in a situation where he/she feels an informational gap, the user looks for information to bridge a gap in his situation and uses the information now available to him in a way that makes sense in the user’s world.

The last approach described is anomalous states-of-knowledge approach, which deals with users who are in a problematic informational situation where the users themselves do not have a complete knowledge and understanding of the situation, their comprehension of the situation is somehow incomplete. The last reading written by Haidi Julien is centered on the issue of ‘user’ – who is this user, which of his needs do information systems try to meet?

The major emphasis in this writing is on the affective aspect of human behavior as well as on the importance of interpersonal communication or word of mouth information gathering. In particular, the questions raised are how to incorporate the affective aspect into the design of information systems and how to design systems which take into account human-to-human information sources. This last reading was most interesting for me as future information professional.

First of all, this article describes in more detail the user himself, placing an emphasis on the fact that user is not a “fool” or a “patient” but is able of complicated interactions and requires a more sophisticated approach to be found to satisfy the information needs of such a user. The article plainly states the next challenges and concerns of information behavior study which information professionals will face in their attempts to improve the user-centered approach. Basically, this article sets the ton and direction of future studies for information scholars.

It also provides more insight to the complicated nature of user, thus, emphasizing again the importance of user-oriented and not system-oriented approach to the study of information behavior. Overall, the text by Haidi Julien makes the reader think over the issues whereas the first two articles provided more of a historical account of the evolvement of the study of information behavior, is raises the question of whose needs do information professional try to satisfy and leaves one thinking of what are the possible ways of designing an information system that would actually satisfy the information user.

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