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September 16, 2014

Quality and accessibility matter, Henry says

By Dan Levindofske

We live in a new age of information overload, where information is so accessible that it is becoming increasingly difficult to choose sources and process information.

Dr. Ray Henry is researching this very phenomenon by attempting to discover how and why people choose certain sources and how the information being presented affects how it is processed.

“Information technology makes information that wasn’t available before more available,” Henry said. “There is more data and information than ever before.”

The first aspect of finding information is choosing a source from which to obtain the information.

People have an overwhelming amount of options as to where to get information from, so it becomes all about knowing where to go for it.

“What is it that affects how people choose different sources of information, and once they choose a particular source of information,” Henry said. “How usable is that information in terms of processing it for different outcomes?”

Some people may choose to go to a friend for information, while others may prefer to search the Internet.

It is not that the information itself is different, but that it is presented in different ways, which varies from individual to individual in terms of preference.

The way information is presented can impact how difficult it is to process, although a higher difficulty is not always a bad thing.

“Sometimes being difficult to process is a good thing because it forces you to slow down and think about things in a different way,” Henry said. “Other times, what you want is the easiest sources. The source that allows me to get it the most quickly with the least effort.”

This is largely task-dependent and highlights the two main aspects of Henry’s research — the way people choose a particular source and how information is presented across different sources.

“The two biggest variables that have been found are quality and accessibility,” Henry said. “The general rule of thumb is that people will use the highest quality source that they can find to be accessible.”

What affects how they see that quality is different for people depending on whether they are looking for a relational or non-relational source.

A relational source falls into the interpersonal category while a non-relational source is impersonal.

These two types of sources are not only different but they compete against one another.

“The way people choose between relational and non-relational sources are dependent on one another,” Henry said. “If I’m a pretty social person not only do I see relational sources as more accessible, but I actually see non-relational sources as less accessible, even if they are nominally equally accessible.”

The point is quality and accessibility matter, but they matter differently for different people.

In fact, accessibility matters less for relational sources because those who seek out relational sources are more willing to put in effort to get information from those sources.

In this sense, social capital matters, with the phrase “it’s not just what you know, it’s who you know” holding true.

“It matters in a way that impacts not just what sources are used, but how effectively knowledge and information are sourced,” Henry said.

In order to see the effects that the presentation and sourcing of information had on the ability to process the information, Henry used a theoretical made the argument that certain ways of presenting information are easier to process than others for certain types of tasks.

“If you have a spatial task, it makes sense to use things like a graph because it makes it easier to process that type of information,” Henry said. “If you have a symbolic task that is more number oriented, presenting it in a table would make it easier to process.”

Henry used eye tracking technology to determine how people were processing information based on how it was presented to them.

“How you look at things actually reflects how much you’re thinking about them,” Henry said. “Unconsciously, your eyes do a lot of stuff that indicate how you’re thinking about things.”

For example, presenting symbolic information in a spatial way forced people to think about it differently and presented different outcomes.

“Certain information you expect to see in certain ways and that can be easier to process and sometimes that’s a good thing,” Henry said. “But in other cases making something easy to process also tends to make people inclined to miss things they might otherwise have seen.”

Of course, the way in which we want information presented is entirely task-dependent, making both source selection and presentation all the more important.