Information in the Situation

Information in the Situation

DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-0152-9.ch002
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Although in an ideal form the information in the world would not involve people, in reality, it has no meaning without people observing and interacting with it. There is a widespread myth (a positivistic view) that information is something in the world that does not depend on people’s point of view and that it is independent of the situation in which it occurs. But information never has fixed significance. The available data is simply the raw material that must be processed. Any particular information element gains significance only from its relationship to other information in the context in which it occurs (Woods, Patterson, & Roth, 2002). However, this chapter tries to minimize those interaction and interpretation aspects, deferring those for the later parts of the book. Instead, it concentrates on the issues of the information in the situation before it gets mentally processed.
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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

This part of the book considers the information as it exists in the world. It presents a high-level view of the information within a situation and how it moves toward the people who need it. The white area in Figure 1 shows the area of the HII model relevant to this chapter. In any particular situation, some information is relevant (with arrows) and some is not (with no arrows). Of the relevant information, some is more salient (line weight). The design goal is to ensure that the reader receives only relevant information and to ensure that the most relevant is the most salient. In many failed designs, this simple concept fails to hold true.

Figure 1.

Information in the world


This chapter looks at:

  • Sources of information: People can obtain information from a variety of sources: books, brochures/leaflets, reports, technical manuals, the Internet, etc. With complex technical information, the kind of information which requires a high level of HII, there needs to be a high level of integration done by design teams. In these situations, large amounts of information are available and it must not cognitively overload them.

  • Information content: Content involves, besides the text itself, the type and scope of the information included in a system.

  • Information context: The context of the situation’s information depends on both people’s goals and information needs. People need access to relevant task information that is immediately understandable and is properly positioned within the situation.

  • Incomplete, ambiguous or conflicting information: An underlying assumption of many design teams is that they will be supplying people with all of the information they need. However, this is rarely true. A major problem is that people cannot tell if the information is complete, incomplete, ambiguous, conflicting, or irrelevant. Yet, people try to work with this information and integrate it into their understanding of the situation.



There exists a wide range of different definitions of information, with many authors presenting various overlapping views. In a survey of different definitions, Buckland (1991) found they fell into three groups, with Marchionini (2008) updating the list by adding a fourth.

  • Information as process. The situational-based process of informing people about a set of facts or data. Whether or not something is information depends on the specific circumstances surrounding it and making the information relevant or irrelevant to the situation.

  • Information as knowledge in the head. Personal and subjective evaluation of what people know or feel. This would be a combination of both new data and prior knowledge. How the information gets into the head tends to be glossed over.

  • Information as thing. The information content in a text or other source which could be given to someone. In this view, a book, brochure, or hard drive could be considered information. This view sees information as a stand-alone object that exists independent of any reader.

  • Information as temporal states in cyberspace (Marchionini’s update). Information in this sense moves beyond being readable and includes the interactions and manipulations people can perform on it. Thus, rather than just reading it, people can annotate or link it, or in other ways work to extend the information content provided by the original author.

In a related vein, there are the issues of defining and distinguishing information from data or knowledge (Figure 2).

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