I have had the honour of being a Visiting Professor at the Information School, University of Sheffield since 2002. Every time I walk into the department I am in awe of the calibre of research and teaching. I’m saying this up front as I am inevitably biased in reviewing Introduction to Information Behaviour by my colleague Professor Nigel Ford. I’m going to start this review in three related places. The first was a fascinating presentation at the Findwise Findability Day by Abby Convert on information architecture, the second is a recent blog post on a paper by Professor Reijo Savolainen about cognitive barriers to information discovery and the third is a book entitled The Organised Mind by Daniel Levitin. The commonality of all three is the mental models we use to manage the process of interpreting the semantic content of information.
This is a particular issue for the design of search applications. I would argue that company of 12,000 enterprise search users does not deliver a single application but 12,000 different versions as each user will have their own mental model. The concept of information behaviour was first proposed by Professor Tom Wilson, Head of the Department of Information Studies at the University of Sheffield (which is now the Information School) in the early 1980s. It is important to understand that information behaviour is not just about information seeking, though that is where much of the research has been focused because of the need to optimise the performance of search applications as information overload became a feature of daily work and living.
In his book Nigel Ford has managed to maintain academic rigour in his analysis of the research that has been carried out whilst also writing a book that will be of great value to students of any information-related discipline as well as intranet and search managers. There have been a great many different models proposed, each with strengths and weaknesses, the weaknesses stemming primary because of the need to delineate cognitive processes in the brain in a way that even cognitive psychologists find very challenging. Take a look at this recent paper from Nature to gain an idea of the challenges of mapping cognitive processes in the brain.
The main sections of this 250pp book cover the basic concepts of information behaviour, what we know of information behaviour, and finally discovering and using knowledge of information behaviour. This last section is especially interesting to me as it sets out some of the issues that need to be taken into account when working on projects for clients that involve any element of the use of information discovery applications. I also found Chapter 5 on how information behaviour can be collaborative of considerable interest, especially given my comments on the new book on collaboration by Oscar Berg.
I just wish that Nigel had published his book before I completed the text of the 2nd edition of Enterprise Search as I would have taken a rather different route in a few places, but I have managed to add a citation to the book at the very last stage of production. This is a book that all search managers should read, as well as intranet managers developing portal applications which push the boundaries of the mental models of probably the majority of users. Reading this book will help you understand why you may be finding that user adoption is not as high as expected, and may well turn you into a mind reader as well as a line manager.