Whilst using search engines for online web searches or in the workplace, our hidden mental models of the information space play a part in how we search. They may also influence how we feel when searching and ultimately, our expectations.
The mental models we hold of the information space can be hard to verbalize, but are crucial to understand in order to improve our designs of information systems and improve information literacy.
Poor information search is not just about time saving and efficiency, there is evidence in the literature that poor information searching has led to missed business opportunities, missed evidence of fraud and caused fatalities.
One method to elicit responses that may otherwise not be verbalized during an interview process, is to stimulate discussion through visual metaphors. Some studies have given cameras to participants to reduce the researchers involvement, although this does not always give useful data. Other methods use a series of photographs as primers to choose from.
I conducted a research study last year with eighteen staff within an oil and gas exploration company. Several photographs were presented to participants who were asked to choose which one best represented their view of the corporate information space and why. For example, one photograph illustrated an untidy bedroom, another supermarket shelves. Virtually all participants chose the maze (photograph introducing this blog) as the photograph that best represented how they view the corporate information space.
Using a constructivist approach (the theory is in the data rather than having an initial hypothesis), a number of themes emerged (Table 1).
Table 1 – Why people chose the maze as the corporate information space
One implication of the research is that it may present opportunities for enterprise search deployments. There may be a requirement to provide an overview ‘a bridge’ of what is contained in a corpus, collection or search result in order to provide better navigation. It is interesting that many users feel there is a hidden design behind their corporate information space, without necessarily knowing what it is.
This may present further research opportunities to gain a deeper understanding of the mental models of professionals in the workplace. By enriching our understanding of the deep assumptions held by searchers (that they may not be able to articulate through normal requirements analysis), we may be able to improve our information strategies and systems.