Hierarchy of Information Needs
Lou discusses the relationship between information architecture and technology, which sparked the following brain dump on my part:
This subject of information and technology has been of interest with me for quite sometime. The term "IT" has been vastly dominated by the technology portion of the term. Oddly, in organizations that have Chief Information Officers (CIOs) and with out Chief Technology Officers (CTOs) the CIOs role is largely focused on technology to serve the information (this is fine), but the stress has been technological solutions. As nearly all of us in the IT field know, the technical solutions are far from perfect (I know nothing is life is perfect) and many times require reworking business processes to take advantage of the technologies best traits. This is much akin to Keith's point about technology companies selling products and not whole solutions.
In my work I came to it from the information and communication side many years ago and along with it I married the technology side, as it was a wonderful pairing with great promise. Over the years I have heard more than anybody's fair share of, "we don't have to worry about knowing the information, we can code around it". This is the point, I learned when you pull in the reins on the technical team. This is what drew me deeper into the realm of the technical side.
If we look at information from the communication viewpoint and what role the information will play as it transfers information to humans and to other machines for use and also reuse. We have to understand the information as its basic levels, similar to Maslow's "Hierarchy of Needs". What are the human elements thatare intended, i.e. what purpose does the information serve? What properties does the information need in order to transmit this information for best use? If the information is corporate sales trends and assessing and tacking variables that impact these trends, then we have to identify the human audiences that will be using this information. The basic level of "Information Need" is do we have the proper data or information to be able to create this type of report. Do we have the information types to provide usable information for the various audiences and do we understand the vocabulary of these audiences (vocabulary in this sense can be textual and visual as some audiences may best understand the information in charts and graphs, while others will best understand textual quantitative indicators). Do we have the basics to begin building this content, which will be tied to a technological question as to how the data and information is captured and stored? Once we can answer yes to these information, human, and technical questions we can move up the "Information Needs” hierarchy. It is also at this point that we know we can publish some information to have some folks make use of it, but we know the use of the information at this point will be far from optimal and the information may not be used in its proper method.
The next level would be questions of information use. We have established we have the data and content to build the information, but how will the information be used and who/what will be using the information. These questions will help shape the information structures and the medium(s) used to convey the information. The information may require different vocabularies that need to be established or used so the different audiences can best understand and make use of the information. What is the environment that the information will be used in and in what context? When these answers are established, only then can the technology to be used for the varying mediums be established. This level gives a great level certainty that the information and its use will be effective.
Far too often the technology is chosen with out asking these questions and the medium is used is driven by the technologies limitations, which limits the information's use and efficiency. Many organizations found that their reliance on storing all information in Adobe Acrobat did not fit their efficient information needs. Acrobat works best for replicating print versions of information and has other properties that work passably, like searching the text, providing information that is accessible to those that are handicapped, quickly accessing sections of that information over a network connection, etc. Many corporations found it was best or even desired to not store their information in Acrobat, but to offer the information in Acrobat as an output of another information storage methods that provided far greater information use and reuse (this does not apply to every organization as their are some organizations that make proper and efficient use of Acrobat and it serves that organization perfectly). These organizations came to the conclusion that the information was the primary importance and the information and its use should drive the technology.
The next step is to determine how the information can be optimized to take advantage of the mediums being used. This will allow the information to have the most impact. As the medium and technologies have been chosen to best present the information, at this point there are steps that can be taken to improve the marriage between the medium and the information. For example, we know that one of the mediums for the information will be Web pages; the information will need to be structured in a manner that takes advantage of the possibilities with that medium. The Web browser gives us the ability to present textual information and charts together, while providing relatively easy access to more detailed information and/or an interactive media presentation that permits the user to see the charts change over time based on the selection of these different variables (done with Flash, DHTML, etc.). Similar information could be offered in a PDF of the printed report that would print on 8.5 by 11 inch paper and one for A4 paper (the international standard paper size).
The last phase it validating and testing the information dissemination. We continually need to test to ensure we have identified all the audiences that are using the information, we are capturing all the data and information is required and makes sense to have for the information's use, we are capturing and storing the information in a means that is efficient for our needs to use the information, we are providing the audiences the information in a means that is most usable and efficient for them, and the information is being found and used.
This Information Needs hierarchy allows the marriage of technology to information where and when it makes sense. This Information Needs seems to be the basis for the user centered design, information architecture, knowledge management, experience design, etc. There is an understanding of the balance that is required between the creators of the information; the information itself; the technology to capture, store, process, and present the information; and the users of the information.
In the past few years the technology and not the information nor the user of the information were the focal points. Money has been spent on technologies that have failed the purchasers and the technology and the whole of the information technology industry gets blamed. There is a great need for people that are willing to use their minds to create the foundation for information, its use, and the technologies that can help make this more efficient. The balance and the steps in the proper order must be there to give information and technology a chance.