DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-0152-9.ch014


People process information on three levels: readability, understandability, and comprehension (Warren, 1993). Readability, how people perceive individual words, has been the focus of the majority of the research, but does not guarantee people understand the content. But the other two carry the information’s meaning. Comprehension, the highest level, is extracting the intending meaning from the text and being able to relate it to the world and use it in the situation. Fitting information to the situation requires comprehension, not just being able to read the content. HII works to focus design teams at the comprehension level for maximally effective communication.
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When I'm working on a problem, I never think about beauty. I think only how to solve the problem. But when I have finished, if the solution is not beautiful, I know it is wrong.—R. Buckminster Fuller

Communication is rhetorical and “nothing can be taken out of its rhetorical context and that items in that context must work in harmony to achieve purpose” (Gribbons & Elsar, 1998, p. 471). However, a rhetorical approach relies on a descriptive theory which has minimal predictive power. Like too many design guidelines, a strict rhetorical approach works in too broad of strokes. Statements of “write appropriately for the audience” are best understood in hindsight, when analyzing why a communication failed. They provide little guidance to determine what is appropriate for the audience and how to present it. A guideline of “The information is easy to comprehend” appears on many heuristic evaluations but is of questionable quality since it provides nothing to aid people creating or evaluating the information in determining if readers will be able to comprehend it.

For example, Hargis et al (1998) stated, “Use graphics that are meaningful and appropriate. Ensure that each illustration accurately depicts the object, concept, or function it is designed to illustrate, and that it does so as simply as possible” (p. 201). Rodriguez (2002) questions how these guidelines can possibly be fulfilled since the methods for accomplishing them are not available. Or more precisely, how can design teams know they are meeting the objective. What defines that the graphic is as simple as possible? The answer varies dramatically between audiences and between different information needs for the same audience. In one situation, a cardiac surgeon needs a highly anatomically correct view of the heart and in another a simple line drawing will suffice, even thought the two graphics might be presenting the same information. But the situation and information needs of that specific situation are different. I’m sure that authors of dense obtuse documents would claim the writing conforms to the guidelines they were given, probably by claiming it’s a very dense topic and it can’t be made any clearer without losing important material.

HII does not strive to eliminate rhetorical principles or design guidelines, but rather to allow design teams to work within the limitations imposed by the design guidelines. A problem with guidelines and their associated descriptive approaches, and a staple comment on various Internet lists for information design and usability, is the mantra of “it depends on the specifics of the situation.” This is a true statement, but it does not help with creating content which can be effectively communicated. By understanding the underlying theory, then design teams have a better grip on analyzing the specifics of the situation and predicting how people will respond. Effective communication decisions require design teams to understand both the specifics of the situation and of human behavior so they understand how to communicate information to meet people’s information needs. Guidelines provide basic guidance about designing information, but were never designed to address how people interact with information in a specific situation. Design teams must extend them to provide the situation-level detail. Ensuring communication and comprehension requires understanding the HII aspects of the situation.

The remainder of this chapter sums up the HII model which forms the foundation of this book with a focus on the cyclic nature of that model. It then takes the process of determining people’s goals and information needs from my earlier work (Albers, 2004) and applies the HII concepts to that process to provide a robust framework for developing content.


Cyclic Nature Of The Hii Model

The HII model for this book is presented in Figure 1. It shows the cyclic interaction information between the situation and people interacting with the information and situation. Chapter 1 described the overall model and each chapter has examined one aspect in detail. Now, as a way of concluding, we will look at the overall model and how information flows in cycles through it.

Figure 1.

Human-information interaction model

A brief summary of the main elements.

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