Tag Archives: information seeking

catalogs communication democracy election Google HCI hierarchy of needs Human-Computer Interaction information-retrieval internet libraries mcluhan misinformation newspapers search-engines user interface design video-games

Democratic Usability: Where to Find Information on Local Elections

Sunset reflected over Chinatown I’m not going to turn this into a full-time political blog, but I just spent the evening researching local issues and candidates and a thought occurred to me – does anyone test the usability and the user experience of the democratic process?

There’s a number of different ways to approach this question.  The usability of voting systems is a big part of it, and in the case of electronic voting machines, this would be identical to traditional usability testing.  I’m going to put that question aside for now since I haven’t studied it very closely and talk about the information seeking portion of the electoral user experience.

Also, I apologize in advance for making this post very U.S.-centric.  Please comment below on how these issues apply in your country.

Political information seeking

We are completely inundated with information and misinformation about the major candidates for national office, from a wide variety of communication media.  Everything from dinner-table conversations and door-to-door canvassing to cable news, candidate web sites, and political blogs can influence how we vote.

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Notes: Design of interfaces for information seeking

Marchionini, G., & Komllodi, A.  (1998). Design of interfaces for information seeking. Annual Review of Information Science and Technology (ARIST), 21, 89-130.

In this chapter Marchionini and Komlodi examine the state of user interfaces for information seeking. Interfaces are defined as the conjunctions and boundaries where different physical and conceptual human constructs meet, and is at the center of information science in fields such as human-computer interaction (HCI and human factors. The chapter looks at advances in technology and research, summarizes the developments of the first two generations of user interfaces, and examines current (as of 1998) developments in the field. One way to look at the chapter is shown in figure 1, with technology, information seeking, and interface design research and development shifting from mainframes to PCs to the web, from professionals to literate end users to universal access, and from ASCII characters to graphics to multimedia respectively. Some early developments remain important today, such as the components of an interactive system – task, user, terminal and content (with context added later). Another milestone was the development of the GOMS (goals, operators, methods and selection) model, the first formal model of of HCI. Two themes throughout the chapter are the interdependent nature of research in this area and the importance of human-centered concepts and design.

This is a really good summary of the history of HCI with an eye specifically toward searching and information use. It’s not surprising the many of the names we have seen on articles this semester show up here as well. The only real regret I have is that there are no pictures. User interfaces often rely on visual display for interaction, so in addition to all the description it would be really interesting to see examples of the different generations of user interfaces. One other criticism is that little attention is paid the the interfaces of video games—I have read a lot of articles about interface design that ignore this field as well.

Although it is a little out of date, there’s a lot to be taken from this chapter’s historical perspective. I found three things in particular that were talked about in relationship to third-generation user interfaces that were particularly interesting. First was the move toward universal access or ubiquitous computing. It is in some ways a measure of success that researchers now worry about the lack of computers in Sub-Saharan Africa—this wouldn’t be a problem if information seeking computer interfaces were not so available, useful, and approachable. Second was the notion that the advance of the web in some ways slowed the advance of user interface design, although the apparent disadvantage quickly disappeared. This is something I’ve run into in a different form as a web designer—clients complaining that their web site did not look exactly like their brochure. Again, in some ways this was an embarrassment of riches—the web site cost nothing to distribute, could be found by search engines, acted as a storefront, but the lack of a particular font face was a step backward? Finally, the notion that the whole field is really interdisciplinary is important to always keep in mind.

Notes: Why are online catalogs still hard to use?

Borgman, C.L. (1996). Why are online catalogs still hard to use? Journal of the American Society for Information Science, 47 (7): 493-503. 

In this 1996 study, Borgman revisits a 1986 study of online library catalogs. In the original study, computer interfaces and online catalogs were still fairly new—the study looked at how the design of traditional card catalogs could inform the design of new online catalogs. By the time of this study online catalogs were common but still not easy to use. Three kinds of knowledge were seen as necessary for online catalog searching: conceptual knowledge about the information retrieval process in general, semantic knowledge of how to query the particular system, and technical knowledge including basic computer skills. Semantic knowledge and technical knowledge differ here in the same way as semantic and syntactic knowledge in computer science. The study also covers specific concepts like action, access points, search terms, boolean logic, and file organization. In the short term, Borgman recommends training and help facilities to help users gain the skills they need to use current systems. In the long run, though, libraries must employ the findings of information-seeking process research if they are ever going to create usable interfaces.

The study does point out a number of reasons why online catalogs are difficult for users, whether it’s because they lack computer skills or semantic knowledge. One good example is from a common type of query language. Even if the user knows that “FI” means “find” and “AU” means author, they may not know whether to use “FI AU ROBERT M. HAYES,” “FI AU R M HAYES,” “FI AU HAYES, ROBERT M,” etc., and how the results will differ. Unfortunately the article lacks clear instructions or examples of how to make the systems better. The conclusion that different types of training materials could be helpful seems to me like a bandage rather than a cure.

I think a lot of the criticisms are still true, but that modern cataloging and searching systems have become easier. I’m not so sure it’s because catalog designers have started applying information-seeking research in their interfaces, though. It almost seems like library systems are being made easier in self-defense. Users are getting more and more used to a Google or Yahoo type interface—a simple search box that looks at full text and uses advanced algorithms to find relevant results. I think part of this is due to the fact that people in the library field have experience with complicated, powerful structure search systems and are used to a lot of manual encoding of records. Web developers, lacking this background, have been more free to think in terms of searching massive amounts of unstructured data and automating the collection and indexing process. I also think that simple things such as showing the results, including summaries of each item, in a scrollable, clickable list, have helped a great deal to support the information seeking process. Things like search history and “back” and “forward” buttons, “search within these results,” automatic spell checking, etc. are becoming pretty standard as well.