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The Recent Shift in Information Systems Design - Master of Information


How can you make sure an information system meets the needs of its users? For a surprisingly long time, possible answers to this question were conceived in a very narrow sense: A user’s information requirements were understood in relation to how he or she behaved in relation to the information system, often ignoring key contextual details. Pursuing an Online Master of Information Degree can help provide the insight and knowledge about information systems and how to meet the needs of its users.

By asking “How is the user interacting with the system?” early information scientists passed up opportunities to investigate individual organizations’ information needs. Since the turn of the 21st century, however, a wealth of interdisciplinary research has been integrated into questions on information systems, greatly improving their architecture.

To provide an effective information system, information scientists must think not only in terms of behaviors users engage in, but also about the social, psychological, and business contexts in which they operate. Researchers did not see these interrelated drivers as a cohesive whole until the Royal Society Scientific Conference in 1948. Here, scholars of the time sought to synthesize readership studies in a broad view of information-seeking behavior.

According to Wilson, information-seeking behavior is “the purposive seeking for information as a consequence of a need to satisfy some goal.” This can involve manual information systems, like a single book or a library, and computer-based systems like the Internet. Over time, the focus of research on information-seeking behavior has shifted from the specialist interacting with manual information systems to the generalist using computer-based systems.

The Royal Society conference, focusing on the library information systems of the time, saw scientists as the chief users of information resources. It was not until decades later, in the 1970s, that academic research was conducted around the information needs of ordinary citizens. Likewise, it wasn’t until commercial availability of the Internet that user studies – surveys and other inquiries into the nature and needs of information users – became widespread.

Finding Information System Insights in Unexpected Places

This shift coincided with the advent of multiple new disciplines devoted to designing specialized information systems – such as modern medical informatics – alongside a newfound and urgent commercial motivation to evaluate the needs of “average” users. As the Internet grew, businesses worldwide had a driving interest in clear information design, catalyzing a profusion of relevant research that touched upon areas such as psychology and user experience design.

At the same time, professionals who had dealt mainly with information systems as traditionally conceived saw the growing need to integrate user behavior insights into their systems and practices. As digitalization become faster and more accurate, libraries, universities, and other guardians of information resources held fewer and fewer unique physical resources between them: Instead, they needed to perform as engaged facilitators of information-seeking.

A New Paradigm: Seeing and Responding to Individual Needs

Although this shift is a significant one for the information scientist, it offers key advantages from the perspective of the information user. With new methodologies come improved capabilities for the information scientist to develop systems appealing to the nonlinearity of the information-seeking process as it occurs in practice. This provides a number of benefits to the user:

Reduced Need for Internal Context and Prior Knowledge

For a user to successfully interact with an information system, he or she must have internalized the uses and requirements of the system or must spend time deciphering those norms, either individually or with the help of an information scientist. This data, while valuable, can be highly context-dependent and may be understood as separate from the core goal-centered behavior of the end user; a modern information system should reduce barriers to entry as much as possible.

Faster Consolidation of Information and Clearer Project Judgment

A complex information-seeking goal requires the information user to consistently review the available resources and seek novel connections between them. While it’s true that, in many cases, the development of these interconnections is key to the production of an individual work, a “slipstream” information system that provides due consideration to physical and computerized resources helps illuminate the crossroads between ideas where fruitful connections can be made.

Lower Cognitive Burden for End Users

Information-seeking is a complex cognitive process that draws upon a user’s internal motivation. As with any form of mental labor, it will interface with the user’s sense of what may be deemed necessary or sufficient versus what may be deemed excellent. It is surrounded by affective factors such as stress, how well the user estimates the information system to meet his or her needs, and so on. A good information system reduces these uncertainties.

Ability to Cater to a Variety of Cultural Frameworks

Some scholars have prioritized a cultural perspective that draws on a fuller understanding of competing cultures and contexts to craft information systems. These are not exclusively national or ethnic “cultures,” but can be understood as the sum of an individual’s norms, mores, and taboos as they apply to a given information-seeking project. Individuals using a system may bring to it multiple contexts and cultures; sensitivity to these accelerates projects.

Improved Use of Limited Information Science Resources

Information scientists face an increasingly complex landscape where significant limits in key assets are common. Ultimately, a deeper understanding of user needs allows them to design new information systems that provide faster, clearer, and more illuminating access to end users from a range of backgrounds. This also facilitates cooperation between information-focused institutions, allowing information resources to be combined and disseminated in novel ways.

Information scientists of tomorrow will be challenged to develop integrated, holistic systems that are responsive to the needs of a full range of users – including those who may access core resources from different cultural, temporal, commercial, and cognitive contexts. That being the case, a successful information scientist should strive for an interdisciplinary background: A human-centered system requires deep insight into behavior and thinking as well as technology.


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