Information Design

Information Design for Cyberspace

Paper presented online at CybErg '99

P. Duchastel
Information Design Institute


Information design (ID) is the technology aimed at structuring information in artifacts so as to make it available and optimally useful. Its roots lie in graphic design, but its future is electronic. Even though ID is a nascent field within cognitive ergonomics, it is already developing specialties. The Web is an information environment that we are beginning to inhabit in different modes: through interaction with information elements and processes on web sites; and through interactions in virtual worlds. Each mode has its own information design style. This paper maps out the features of information design in each mode and discusses the different functions played by autonomous agents depending on the style. Autonomous agents (software to which we delegate specific intellectual tasks that involve some initiative) are appearing to assist humans with handling information. This not only changes the nature of the interaction with computers; it also potentially changes how we view information and its uses. Information may be accessed differently by different groups identified along cultural lines, including electronic cultures. The implications for ID are potentially dramatic.

© CybErg 1999. All rights reserved.

Keywords: web site design, autonomous agents, information philosophy.

1. Introduction

The age of cyberspace is seeing an unwieldy expansion both in the volume of information being produced and in the variety of this information. What used to be produced by individuals as personal reflections or for sharing in a limited context is now engorging cyberspace in a public manner, thereby contributing to the informational baggage portrayed by Ma in the quote opening this section.

The problem of finding information has largely given way to the problem of sorting information in order to select those elements that are relevant from among all those that are available. From the user point of view, the issue is one of selection in response to an identified need. From the producer perspective, the issue is one of design - how does one optimally design information for this new (and evolving) context?

The solutions provided in this document are not technical solutions, such as for instance the use of metatags in document formatting code. The focus instead lies in examining higher-level considerations regarding the nature of the evolving context in which information is used and the processes that will increasingly shape and use that information. The context, far from being a uniform one, involves two forms of information (represented prototypically by web sites and by virtual worlds) and will best be approached through a look at different aspects of information. The processes of information use have until recently been the privileged domain of humans in the pursuit of their various activities, but the limelight is now starting to be shared by software agents to which we are delegating more ambitiously autonomous tasks. What this will lead to is an open question, but this development will certainly have implications for information design.

These issues are foundational for the field of information design. They form the philosophical questions regarding information that might underlie future innovations in the field and they orient whatever guidance might be offered currently for the practical design of information in cyberspace.

We are witnessing the emergence of a new science of information and of a new practice of information design. How this will help us overcome our current 'informational baggage' problem is one thing, how it might assist in inventing new ways to harness and deal with information and the larger task of living is yet another (a more promising one, as well).

Many will find the ideas presented here provocative and unsteady - all in all, an excellent state of affairs! These are the conditions that can spur us on to pushing these ideas further, if not altogether elsewhere. This would be a picture of genuine creativity in a field (communication studies) that has lacked for long new perspectives to shape innovation and lead with insightful research. The technology is now pushing us to re-examine our assumptions about what we really mean by information. A tough challenge, to be sure, but a gripping one too, as it involves who we are and how we act in our ever more digitized world.

2. The informational realm

The informational realm is one in which processes in the world are not only heavily imbued with information (in the spirit of the service economy), but also mostly take place as information transactions themselves. Information is processed by information processors of many kinds (as we see in the next section).

Cyberspace can be seen as presently evolving two prototypical modes of interaction. On the one hand, complex symbolic information to be processed as knowledge is being designed on web sites and made available at large. On the other hand, virtual worlds are being designed for immersive experiences generally involving simpler and more direct interactions.

Web pages (assembled in web sites in an analogous manner to chapters being bound together as a book) are the new conveyors of information in our information age world. All important information is being digitized simply because of the ease with which general distribution can then economically take place. The web has transformed information access, and hence its distribution, and in its wake, it is transforming its design.

What we read on the web may often seem not all that different than what we might see in printed form (this very document illustrating that quite well!), but yet web pundits such as Nielsen (1999) insist that writing for the web is and must be in a different style than writing for print. In essence, how we interact with the web is different than how we interact with a book (or other printed document), and hence designing for the two media must also be different.

That this document you are now reading makes that mistake will be discussed shortly.

How do we represent the different modes of interaction? The principal difference between reading a book and surfing the web lies in the tone of the processes involved. In interacting with information in a printed document, we are focused on a specific task (for instance, learning something), whereas our interaction on the web is generally less intentional (Duchastel, 1998), more akin to browsing a magazine and simply seeing what comes along that will be of interest. In effect, then, information interaction is different.

A note about the generality of these considerations must be made here. It is necessary to realize that we are talking about prototypical features. In other words, about the typical case, realizing full well that many alternate scenarios are indeed possible. The web, just like print, is a very general medium and can be used for many purposes in varied ways. So we are discussing the general, more usual case, rather than the variety of cases, some of which might be extremely specialized.

Likewise, the web page is prototypical of complex digital informational media generally speaking. A CD-ROM is a different medium, with its own features, but yet, browsing a set of documents on this medium is rather similar to doing so on the web. The design features will be more similar than different. Once again, we are dealing with a prototypical mode rather than a fully differentiated one.

The fact that this academic paper is written in a standard style rather than in one more appropriate for the web is due to the exigencies of the professional standards that frame academic discourse. These have been normed over time within a traditional context and have not yet evolved to the new medium of the web. The process is underway, but traditions being what they are, time for adaptation is required.

Turning now to the second prototypical mode of interaction with information in cyberspace (here too, merely prototypical), we need to consider virtual worlds (what I shall call v-spaces). These emerge out of the virtual realm, a mode of being similar to the informational realm that operates on digital information, but that generally relaxes some of the real-world constraints that provide full coherence to our usual world (Duchastel, 1999a). It should be noted that virtual worlds as portrayed in the cinema (The Matrix as one example of this) are a totally different breed of imaginative v-spaces, with at times very unrealistic aspects that detract from the more realistic possibilities they may contain.

Virtual worlds are primarily thought of as immersive laboratories that we enter into in order to explore new experiences, be they sensory or social in nature. They are currently mainly created for their entertainment value, but will likely evolve to other usages shortly as the underlying technologies mature. These could well include shopping (and e-commerce generally), many forms of creative work (and indeed, perhaps work of all kinds), and of course intellectual exploration. These less trivial pursuits in virtual spaces will involve interacting with information, most of it reified in virtual artifacts populating a virtual space.

This line of information usage will involve a style of information design that on the surface resembles little the information design involved in symbolic communication via web pages. This is misleading, however, for the underlying core of information, and hence of information design, lies in structure, i.e. how elements in an organized body of knowledge interrelate, irrespective of whether they are symbolic or artifactual. This is new territory, however, and the required principles of information design remain to be worked out from the beginning.

That many of these cognitive artifacts will embody some forms of intelligence only makes their design all the more challenging.

3. Agencies in cyberspace

That autonomous agents are gradually maturing as a field of activity within computing is being recognized (Joshi and Singh, 1999) and its implications for human computer interaction are beginning to be discussed (Duchastel, 1999b). What is novel for computing, and for information design and communication generally, is the fact that humans will no longer be the sole users of information.

If we look at information from a functional perspective, we see it as support for processes, for task-based activities that fulfill certain needs. In other words, information is not gratuitous, not purposeless, but rather it is used for meeting certain goals (even though these may be diffuse at times, in a less intentional context). Indeed, the very notion of design of information implies some functionality.

This leads to the potential for new information designs that are more in tune with the needs of these agents rather than our own human ones. How information must be designed for human processing is different than how it need be designed for machine processing (i.e. processing by autonomous agents). Two issues arise in this context: conflict and communication.

The potential for conflict is no stronger than it is between autonomous humans. However, as we create autonomous agents and delegate to them a range of activity and decision-making in the less closed environments than computer science traditionally deals with (Jain, Aparicio and Singh, 1999), the potential for conflict is magnified. Less control means implicitly more open interaction and a need for greater communication.

Enhanced communication will be needed not only between the humans who direct the activities of their autonomous agents, but also between individual autonomous agents and humans they encounter in the pursuit of their assigned activities. Just as we typically read the intentions of other humans we interact with (even if we misread them occasionally), we will likewise need to read the intentions of autonomous agents we interact with in cyberspace. That essentially means understanding their information.

In sum, we are entering an age in which we will be sharing the stage with other cognitive beings, non-human in their constitution and in the manner in which they process information. This is a radical departure from the comfortable information-sharing situation we have experienced up until now (Duchastel, 1999a).

4. Design for openness

Information design (ID) at its core is a professional field, not an academic one. The practical task is to design information. With roots in graphical design and in human-computer interaction, information design goes beyond both. Information design is also an evolving field, with new perspectives appearing rapidly (Pearce, 199x; Nielsen, 1999).

A good starting point is the end-point: optimal usefulness. How can that be defined in general terms? Ergonomic functionality (i.e. easy and effective use) is often put forth as the defining criterion in this area, even in cognitive ergonomics of the kind discussed here. Thus, Nielsen (1999) builds his whole perspective of web design and usability on the notion that users are searching for specific information. As suggested a few years ago, however, the less intentional nature of information in cyberspace challenges this prime assumption of ergonomics (Duchastel, 1998).

A number of other factors derived from the current and evolving context of cyberspace further inform this issue and increase the challenge. They include disintegration of the document, general purposing for multiple usages, and multi-agencies of usage.

While some futurists talk of the natural demise of the book, we should instead see its placement within a wider range of information types. Just as television did not displace radio or film, but rather slotted them in specific contexts, so too, new forms of information presentation will slot the book in a more restricted context. Online documents will simply be different.

What we do see occurring, however, is the disintegration of the document. Web sites break the rules of document structure by moving beyond standards and experimenting with the openness of interaction made available online. Virtual worlds in particular exemplify this outreach; they contain information, but present it in ways that professionals concerned with information and communication do not readily identify with. Many interactive web sites, without being virtual worlds, employ similar strategies to gain and hold the attention of users. In the end, the document as the means of conveyance of symbolic information in our culture is gradually being displaced by a whole host of other forms following their own, often novel (Murray, 1997), approaches to communication and community.

This openness of means follows openness of intent. While information is typically thought of as part of communication and within a functional context of some specificity, we see here too an opening of possibilities in terms of usage. Web sites do not just convey information (even though they can do that very well); they also provide an experience and at times create a relationship (Fogg, 1999). This of course is particularly true of virtual spaces, which capitalize on sensory content, in contrast to symbolic content. Information thus comes to play a much wide role than traditionally conceived and its design must take these multiple usages into account (going far beyond the general purposing required for multiple audiences, i.e. varied user groups).

Finally, the fact that information will be used by humans and autonomous agents, each with their own capabilities and perspectives, is bound to radically transform information design. It is very early on in this line of development to see how this will evolve, but some compelling questions arise regarding in particular how agents will use information and to what purposes. Learning and memory, for instance, are radically different in humans and computers, and these differences will impinge greatly on how information is communicated / transferred among the different agencies. Speculation as to possibilities is being carried out (Duchastel, 1999c) and this is bound to become a very strong emerging area of information design as agencies continue to develop.

Indeed, we are led to a re-examination of the meaning of information and to a rekindling of interest in the specialized field of information philosophy. While the technical strategies for designing information for web sites and virtual spaces will continue developing at a rapid pace, it is the radically novel usages and contexts that will orient information design as a innovative professional field.

5. Cultural perspectives

We thus come to a rather novel cultural situation in which different forms of information are shared by different types of information processors. Specifically, symbolic information (exemplified by web site design) and sensory, experiential information (as found in v-spaces) will be used by both humans and autonomous agents, each in their own way. This context creates an interaction mix that in effect constitutes a new information culture that we humans will need getting used to.

Our habits of information usage, as currently embodied in our present cultural patterns, are bound to radically change. Exactly how that will take shape cannot be known in advance, but we can at least foresee a great increase in the amount and diversity of communication taking place. Literary genres are a good illustration of both the traditions that are being challenged by the explosion of new information possibilities and the evolution of new, still un-established modes of expression (Murray, 1997). That this will generalize to all forms of information design is easy to predict.

Just as cultures in different parts of the world interact slightly differently with information because of their specific cultural values and traditions, so too are we likely to see different cultural ways of interacting emerge as diversity of forms and agencies of information exchange comes about. Cultural differences may be lessening within the human race as a whole (irrespective of the value one may attach to that fact), but cyberspace with its specific modes of information and agencies creates new cultural differences that will impinge on our interactions in the world.

We could well see, for instance, the machine-reprocessing of existing information into more synthetic forms that are more usable symbolically in the processing of certain cognitive tasks. We could see perhaps the evolution of novel languages that deal with information in better ways, both between humans and autonomous agents and between agents themselves. We could see also a dissolution or merging of information into other forms of activities and embodiments, particularly as we explore reifications of information in v-space artifacts that we interact with.

All these are but imaginative extensions of where we currently stand in our information design world. What they illustrate, though, is the potential for extremely novel and exciting developments as we continue to build a somewhat wild cyberspace through our technical inventiveness.

This is the essential challenge of information design for cyberspace.


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Duchastel, P., 1999b. Beyond HCI - Towards information interaction. Submitted for publication. Preprint online at .

Duchastel, P., 1999c. Information Interactions. Submitted for presentation. Preprint online at .

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