When people interact with information

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Elements of the information domain

Software, intelligent devices and machines are constantly being developed to assist people’s everyday actions and help them solve problems, from simple tasks like writing, reading, shopping online or booking flights to more complex ones, such as online banking (best invention ever) and medical related analyses. While these innovations help us save time and quite a few headaches, on the other hand, they can challenge human communication. You can spend an entirely week at home without interacting face-to-face with other human being, as you will be able to interaction in many other ways through the web. Don’t tale me wrong, I do appreciate most technological advances and the cyber technology is great, but sometimes, it could be seen as people’s interests are mostly focus on how to improve technology and cyber interactions, rather than, again, human communication. Well, I have a good news, because that is not the case. It seems that throughout the XX century, people’s focus of attention has shifted towards more human-centred interests instead.

Marchionini (2008) explains that in the first half of the past century, societies’ concerns were mainly related to ‘studying the acquisition, organisation, and management of collections of information objects’ and information itself, such as books, articles, and all sort of knowledge. Then, they shifted towards understanding both human and technological elements independently, and their relationship to assist and enhance communication and knowledge acquisition. But lately, during the last 30 years, interests and concerns have been adopting a more human-centred approach, looking at how people make sense of those information objects (e.g. communicate, gain understanding, etc.). Technology has remained as a large area of interest, but it has become more user-oriented, as well as Design, which has adopted various user-centred models to solve current design problem. What is more, how people interact with information and how that relationship can be improved have become the centre of ongoing discussions and countless studies. Often people interact with information through technology. This interaction with technology is necessary, but it is not enough to achieve understanding or gain knowledge. The main reason for that is that, previously, the human-technology relationship has been developed without taking into account user’s needs, but only that of technology. Fortunately, this has changed.

Short ago, I came across the term ‘Human Information Interaction’ (HII) for the first time. However, this term was coined by Gershon (1995 in Lucas, 2000) almost 20 years ago to refer to the field which studies ‘how human beings interact with, relate to, and process information regardless of the medium connecting the two’. Likewise information design, HII is concerned with the relationship between people and information: how people seek for, examine, interact with and make sense of information. In this case, human-information interactions are internal and constitute the process by which people gain understanding, find patterns and discover connections among data (e.g. among people, places, events). This process is often referred to as sensemaking. Sensemaking occurs when there is a ‘deliberate effort to understand an event’ (Klein et al., 2007). Throughout this process a person gives meaning to experiences by trying to find, define or construct a story, script, maps, schemes, or some other type of structure which may help them explain the portion of the environment they are analysing and guide the search for more data.

Through the sensemaking process, we digest, examine and explore unstructured information and data until we obtain structured information and gain knowledge. How we interact with and manage information is what determines the quality of understanding. Graphic and visual principles are not indispensable to make sense of information. However the use of well-designed graphic representations (e.g. maps, charts, tables, schemes, diagrams, timelines, interactive visualisations, etc.) can greatly assist understanding, support visual exploration, analysis and presentation of data. Here is where the role of visual sensemakers is needed to assist the understanding process and information management. Through the creation of the appropriate set of visual aids, visual sensemakers can support people gain knowledge and improve communication.

Having a closer look to the information domain, it is formed of three elements: ‘information objects (e.g., books, articles, and other physical records); humans who create, manage, and use the objects to form mental representations; and the technologies that capture, store, transmit, and manage information objects’ (Marchionini, 2008). Information visual fields (e.g. information design, information visualisation, data visualisation, scientific visualisation and visual analytics) are concerned with those three elements, but their focus of study is placed on different elements or combination of elements. To some extent, all those information visual fields sit within the intersection of human-information interaction, computer sciences, graphic design, art and cognitive sciences domains, to name a few domains. This is why it is a challenging task to sharply define their boundaries.

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- Klein, G., Phillips, J. K., Rall, E. L., & Peluso, D. A. (2007). A Data-Frame Theory of Sensemaking. In: Expertise Out of Context: Proceedings of the Sixth International Conference on Naturalistic Decision Making (Expertise: Research and Applications Series). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. p. 113-155.
– Lucas, P. (2000) Pervasive Information Access and the Rise of Human-Information Interaction. In: CHI 2000 Human Factors in Computing Systems, The Hague.
– Marchionini, G. (2008) Human–information interaction research and development. Library & Information Science Research, 30, p.165–174.

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