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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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Duchastel, P., 1999a. Towards an Information Realm. Submitted for presentation. Preprint online at http://home.earthlink.net/~castelnet/info/realm.html .
Duchastel, P., 1999b. Beyond HCI - Towards information interaction. Submitted for publication. Preprint online at http://home.earthlink.net/~castelnet/info/beyond.html .
Duchastel, P., 1999c. Information Interactions. Submitted for presentation. Preprint online at http://home.earthlink.net/~castelnet/info/interaction.html .
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