Last time in this series we talked with Jerome Rivera of New Zealand about the messy realities confronted by frontline staff in libraries around the world. You can see some of that ongoing discussion via the #CodeBrown hashtag on Twitter.
What does an appreciation for messiness and uncertainty mean for the design of future experiences in libraries and their sister institutions? How can we best meet the information needs of the communities we serve?
Joining me this time is Dr. Kate Davis, my colleague at the University of Southern Queensland (USQ). Kate is a social scientist based in USQ’s Digital Life Lab, carrying out research into social media and the qualitative analysis of information experiences.
Kate, I’ve heard of UX – user experience – but never IX. What is “information experience” all about?
IX is about understanding how people engage with information. It’s relational – focussed on the contexts in which people need, seek, manage, give, and use information.As an IX researcher, I aim to understand how people experience information as part of their daily lives. I’m interested in all the messy, complex, and wayward interactions we have with information, big and small. IX researchers take a holistic view: it’s not about the individual user, or the individual piece of information, but about understanding that people are inseparable from their informational worlds.
How do you define information for these purposes?
I don’t expect we’ll ever pin down a precise and final definition of information, because it varies in different contexts, for different people, as part of different experiences.
Researchers working in the information experience space define information as “that which informs”. We restrict our object of study by choosing a cohort or community – then we look at everything which informs that group in a specific context.
So any experience which is noticed, contemplated, imagined, or reflected on becomes information?
Kind of! It certainly includes the sensation of your bare feet on grass, or the taste of food, or the sound of music, just as much as words on a page or something you’re told.
In fact, taste is a great example of IX researchers’ take on the world. My colleague Dr Elham Sayyad Abdi at QUT talks often talks about recipes and cooking when she’s explaining information experience.
You might go to a recipe website, you have an experience on the website searching or browsing the recipes. A UX researcher might explore the experience an individual has of the website. But the IX researcher is interested in how the person engages with that recipe, as something that informs them. How they read it from the website, how they then cook based on that recipe in the kitchen, how the information they receive during the cooking shapes the process – the smell of the food, the taste, other sensory cues like sight of food changing colour in the pan. These are all part of the information experience.
Yes! When we were discussing scientific method for last year’s Fun Palaces, this came up. The idea that a scientist is someone who revises their beliefs in the face of evidence, so if you taste soup you’ve made from a recipe and think, “not salty enough”, and add salt, you’re on your way to the scientific method.
And the experience doesn’t stop with the cooking of the meal. Perhaps you leave comments on the recipe website, or reviews, or star ratings. Perhaps you share the image of your food on Instagram and someone else asks you about what you cooked. Perhaps you used an Instagram filter to make it look more appetising!
Ha! My friend from New York recently emailed me a stew recipe from 1961 all annotated with her own suggestions about how to put it into practice. So I know what you mean…
Recipes are great, but how does an IX approach help institutions, communities, and professionals design services and environments for our users?
IX allows us to understand how people are already engaging with information. It means we can support and develop those existing relationships, rather than forcing them to use systems we impose – or educating them into using systems we have devised for our convenience.
Because IX is about people and their relationship to information, it builds on the best of both evidence-based practice (EBP) and design thinking. This is something my colleague Zaana Howard and I discuss in a paper, “From Solving Puzzles to Designing Solutions: Integrating Design Thinking into Evidence-Based Practice“.
There’s a danger with EBP that practitioners spend all their time reading up on the existing evidence base, setting their own limits based on what people have done before. You build your own barriers based on others’ articles, datasets, previous analyses.
While existing literature can provide grounding, it is not sufficient to determine solutions to problems where radical innovation and agility is required.
We need to remember that evidence is something you can make for yourself by testing new hypotheses –
Putting the salt in the soup, revising your beliefs!
– and evidence can be conceptualised more broadly as clients’ stories, accounts of their experiences, reflective pieces too. EBP in its purest form is meant to be cyclical, but it often starts with pre-existing evidence and then runs its course.
IX, because it focuses on experience and relationships, is still concerned with evidence and provable impact, but it links to the ongoing, human-centred, and iterative nature of design thinking – where you think up new approaches and solutions and then test them in an ongoing, responsive cycle.
The hybrid model of EBP and design thinking I developed with Zaana Howard blends research and appraisal with storytelling – a formal and informal way to close the loop and contribute to the evidence base. Every situation is unique, so this isn’t about generating a library of cut-and-paste solutions or templates: it’s about documenting process, inputs, and learnings for other people.
We’ve seen some of the challenges regarding EBP in innovation work with health practitioners. Some medical staff, invited to pitch projects to an innovation fund, struggled to come up with fresh ideas for testing because they were so wedded to the idea of operating within the existing evidence base. Of course, if you’re a medic, you want to use reliable, tried and tested methods to heal your patients – but there’s also a danger in failing to innovate and develop new responses to the changing world around us.
I guess the IX focus on experience also helps with the issue of metrics and quantitative results too? I hear catchphrases like “what gets measured, gets done” a lot – but it’s also true to say that “what gets done, gets felt” by those whom it’s done to!
Yes. It can be difficult to quantify measures, and the decisions about which woolly concepts to quantify tend to be made by the professionals rather than worked out jointly with the community of users. In any case, quantitative stuff can be challenging when talking about the messy world of human interaction.
For example, imagine if you’re looking at how early career university researcher engage with social media. You can measure hits and clicks and likes and shares but an IX researcher also looks at a wide range of instances of creation, co-creation, responding, commenting, and sharing to understand how people are engaging with the information, why this matters, and who it matters to. The complex, nuanced “how” matters, not just “how much”; and also the “why” and the “what does it mean?”. For example, what does it actual mean when someone favourites a tweet?
It means that your heart EXPLODES, Kate. Your ACTUAL HEART.
Seriously, though, isn’t this question of the quantitative and qualitative one of the biggest challenges for a data-driven world? Not just Goodhart’s Law – “When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure” – but all the confusions that happen when we try to use quantitative indicators to capture service performance.
This is a huge opportunity for us to broaden our horizons, though. IX offers a more nuanced way of looking at engagement with information.
Currently we sometimes avoid explicitly using the word “information” in our research because it immediately makes people go back to preconceived notions of text on a page. But if we can broaden people’s understanding of information as something that is sensory and social and is a whole world within which we swim – if we can do this, and remind them that gathering new evidence is as valid as sitting on the knowledge of the past – there are huge opportunities ahead.
Where is your research headed next?
My PhD thesis was on new mothers’ experience of social media – how they share knowledge, advice, hints and tips, experiences and expressions of emotion online. Now I’m beginning to explore how messages for and against vaccination move through the information world of social media.
To help mothers make informed decisions about their children’s healthcare, we need to understand how they interact with the information they’re exposed to online, and how that impacts on decision making about immunisation.
It relates closely to the phenomenon of fake news, which as you can imagine I’m fascinated by. It’s quite the time to be an information researcher!
See more of Kate Davis’ work at her website, or follow her on Twitter – @katiedavis.
You can also read ““From Solving Puzzles to Designing Solutions: Integrating Design Thinking into Evidence Based Practice“, Kate’s article co-written with Zaana Howard.