DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-0152-9.ch001
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Decisions on what content to include and how to design that content are major decisions that profoundly influence the overall communication of any text. In the course of arriving at how to communicate the information, alternatives are narrowed down until a final design, content, and interaction strategy is reached. Information is not a commodity to be simply transferred from person to person, nor is it something that can be poured into someone’s head. Instead, it is inherently value laden, and the situational context and presentation strongly influence people’s comprehension and the content’s overall effectiveness. Different choices of media affect readers differently and change how they interpret a text (Nisbet et al., 2002). Printed reports get interpreted differently than an identical online report. Changing the color schemes or adding audio can change it again. There is no single answer to what is the best method; it depends on the readers. Communicating clearly to that reader requires the design teams understands those readers.
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“The skill of writing is to create a context in which other people can think.”— Edwin Schlossberg

In the end, design teams need to consider all of the reader’s information needs, text constraints, and content options, which make up the text’s problem space, map those onto the design space, and then map both of these onto a person’s goal space. All three of the spaces: problem space, design space, and user’s goal space need to be explored and charted until the final product is produced. (Albers, 2008). “Understanding and facilitating information interaction requires considering the process of interaction, as well as the resultant changes in both the human-information seeker and the information objects” (Marchionini, 2008, p. 171).

Nickerson and Landauer (1997) suggest that a better understanding of how humans conceptualize information spaces should increase software usability. They want to shift the design focus from technology to people. Likewise, a significant increase in information communication effectiveness could result if design teams had a better understanding of how readers conceptualize and interpret information. Explicitly missing from much discussion of communicating technical information are the nitty-gritty issues of how people approach, interpret, and use information. Improving the ability to communicate complex technical information requires understanding the situations people work within and the information needs of the tasks performed in those situations (Ash, Berg, & Coiera, 2004; Mirel, 1998; Stary, 1999).

Many of the communication failure issues we consistently see have a root cause not based on human-computer interaction (HCI) and how people interact with computers, nor on the completeness of the information, nor the writing quality of the text. Instead, it fails because of a failure to understand how information is communicated to people and how those people interact with and interpret that information to accomplish their goals. Essentially every modern business and technical communication textbook starts with statements about how the writer must understand the user, but fails to provide much information about what we know about how people mentally process text. Generally missing from most of the design and writing literature are the underlying concepts about how people actually understand and interact with information. This book works to develop a coherent presentation of human-information interaction (HII) which strives to address that shortcoming.

Discussing software system design, Malhotra and Galletta (2004) state “Even the best-designed information systems are not used if they are not aligned with the system users’ motivations and commitment” (p. 89). They were talking about typical computer systems, but the same applies even more strongly to systems designed primarily to communicate information, such as most web sites. Consider the huge amount of information which must be condensed down by a design team to allow people to achieve their goals. With the wide range of potential people and varying needs, this becomes a highly complex problem.

To help ensure that users’ interactions with a system are successful, preparation of content and its presentation to users must take into account (a) what information needs to be extracted, (b) the way in which this information should be stored and organized, (c) the methods for retrieving the information, and (d) how the information should be displayed (Proctor et al., 2002, p. 26).

Most design teams can create a consistent interface and well-written content, but that same content too often fails to consider how people really interact with the information. As a consequence, it fails at supporting high quality HII. A goal of this book is to help design teams bring those considerations into the design process and to improve overall HII.

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