Use of Information

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"Information use" is concerned with understanding what information sources people choose and the ways in which people apply information to make sense of their lives and situations. This use can be instrumental (e.g., when a decision-maker uses financial data to inform a budget decision), or it can be affective, influencing how people feel (e.g., a person may use information gathered during a conversation with a friend to feel more motivated or better satisfied about a career choice). Information is defined as data (drawn from all five senses and thought) that is used by people to make sense of the world. Indeed, Brenda Dervin (1992) contends that information is only such when it is used by somebody.

The reasons for why people create information may not be the same as the reasons for why people use information. Information is interpreted and used differently (and often in unintended ways) by different individuals and groups. For example, the information that is provided in a radio broadcast may, in the view of the show's producer, have the primary purpose of influencing voters' decisions. However, that information may be used in an unanticipated or unwanted way; it may be used as a source of humorous commentary by a comedian, or it may be used as fodder for an alternative political viewpoint. The uses to which people put information depend on such factors as their existing knowledge, their affective state (i.e., mood and motivation), their intellectual abilities, and their existing skills (e.g., literacy) or physical disabilities.

One of the most prolific researchers in information behavior (i.e., all aspects of people's interaction with information), Tom Wilson (1999), considers information use to include people's physical and mental acts to incorporate information into their existing base of knowledge. Use of information is conceived as the final stage of a process that begins with recognition of an information need. Once the need has been identified, people search for information to meet that need, and then they apply or use the information that is found. This process is iterative and complex, and it is influenced by a number of factors.

Information Uses

People use information to seek meaning in a variety of situations. Sometimes they use information instrumentally, to do something tangible (e.g., to acquire a skill or reach a goal). Other times, information is used cognitively (e.g., to generate ideas). Yet in other cases, information is used in an affective manner (e.g., when an individual uses information to feel supported or to derive pleasure). Some researchers believe that people use information to reduce uncertainty, so that the more information that is provided, the greater the reduction of uncertainty. While this is sometimes true, information can also increase uncertainty about a particular issue or problem (e.g., about what political party to vote for or what career path to pursue). The World Wide Web is a good example of this because contradictory information can occur on different websites. These contradictions can leave a person feeling quite uncertain about how to make sense out of the information that they find.

People also use information to confirm or verify something that they know, to predict what may happen, and to develop or maintain personal relationships. Regardless of the labels that are used to describe the variety of uses to which information can be put, it is clear that the possible uses are as diverse as the number of individual people who are living in individual contexts and facing individual questions, issues, or problems. Moreover, one person may use the same information in two different ways, depending on personal circumstances. This is not meant to imply that information use is not predictable to some degree; variables that are internal and external to individuals certainly influence information behavior, including information use.

Contextual variables (e.g., whether the physical environment is comfortable) and the relative importance of an information need also affect people's decisions to make use of or to ignore information. For example, information about the quality of a local public school system may be ignored completely by a given person until he or she has school-aged children. A parent who is struggling to feed several children may pay more attention to information about subsidized lunch programs than to information about the overall educational quality of the school. This phenomenon is known as selective attention. People constantly make decisions about what information to monitor in an ongoing but relatively passive way, what information to seek in an active sense, what information to ignore, and what information to use. People may attend to information in a minimal way, simply storing it in memory until it becomes useful in the construction of some meaning at a later date. The reasons that people use to select certain information include psychological variables (e.g., personality characteristics), contextual variables (e.g., work roles or way of life), and social variables (e.g., social expectations or social norms).

People in all situations tend to use information sources that are convenient, that have been found to be useful in past experience, and that are believed to be trustworthy. Judgements about what makes a source trustworthy depend on a person's individual values, the person's particular situation, and the question or problem that the person is facing. People therefore develop habits of information use. For example, many North Americans habitually turn to the Internet for information. In all cultures, most people are in the habit of asking their friends and family for information.

People also seek emotional support from information providers, and then the judge the value of the information partly on the manner in which it is delivered. Thus, if an adolescent is given career-related information from a guidance counselor, that information is much more likely to be trusted and used if the counselor is viewed as a trustworthy person and if the counselor demonstrates concern for the feelings of the adolescent.

The importance of affect or emotional factors in information use is a large reason why personal communication (either face-to-face or technologically mediated) remains a primary source of information for many people. In workplaces, in families, and within adolescent peer groups, people seek information from others whom they trust and with whom they wish to strengthen social relationships. Thus, people may turn to a trusted family member for advice, or they may ask a question of an acquaintance or work colleague with whom they seek a social bond. On the other hand, when an individual wishes to avoid potential embarrassment or to maintain privacy, information may be sought from a more formal, impersonal source. Thus, people tend to minimize personal risk in their information seeking and use, and they sometimes feel the need to deceive others with regard to their information use in order to protect their self-image or to enhance their status or reputation. Somebody who needs information about a venereal disease, for example, is more likely to seek that information from a formal, anonymous source than from a family member who may be shocked by such a request. In a workplace, a person may, in an attempt to avoid appearing ignorant, deceive colleagues about the source of the information that was used to inform a decision; for example, a person might do this by giving the impression of having consulted several formal sources of information when in fact that has not been done.

Much has been written about types of information needs (i.e., what sorts of people in what situations need what sorts of information), about what kinds of information people seek, and about the processes that people use to seek information. Much of the research into the process of information seeking has focused narrowly on how people search for information via computers (i.e., the retrieval of information). Successful retrieval is equated with relevance to the user. Because relevance is subjective, it is difficult to predict what information will be found to be relevant or useful to people, except under specific conditions. Individual variation in cognitive or information processing style and situational factors (e.g., time constraints) have also been related to information use. For example, the familiar problem of information overload can cause cognitive confusion and force people to limit the information they use.

How people use formal information systems such as libraries is another question, although that area of research focuses on information seeking rather than on the actual use of the information that is found.

The Importance of Context

One of the most important aspects of information use is the context in which people's questions or information-related problems arise, sometimes called the "information use environment" (IUE). IUEs can be characterized by the following four major factors:

  1. the people or context (e.g., a particular professional or special interest group),
  2. the type of problem criteria used to evaluate information pertaining to the problem,
  3. where a person seeks information (which influences, for example, access to information, experience using various information channels, and cultural rules and values),
  4. and the way in which the person resolves problems.

For example, in an organization where problems tend to be unstructured and where creativity is encouraged, spending considerable time in conversation with colleagues to generate new ideas may be rewarded, thus suggesting that colleagues would be a primary source of information. In another environment, workers may face well-structured problems and find that particular online databases provide useful information. In that IUE, the use of the online information likely would be valued and rewarded. Those working in particular professions tend to use some information sources more than others; engineers and scientists rely heavily on print and electronic sources such as journals and books for their work, whereas organizational managers rely more on interpersonal sources such as colleagues and meetings. One cannot ignore the specifics of a situation, or the importance of specific work roles and their associated tasks, in determining the types of information that individuals will find useful.

The concept of IUEs and the importance of work roles and tasks fit well with what is known about information use by different professional groups. Health-care professionals have been found to use online information from Medline to make decisions related to patient-care, research, teaching, learning, administration, and consultations— all of which are task-related examples of information use. In all occupational groups, the factors that affect information use include perceived quality, availability, accessibility, and ease of use. Contextual factors that influence information use include an individual's seniority, experience, phase of work (or task), specialty, educational level, and professional orientation. For work-related information, while convenience might be a primary fact in choosing a source, informational quality is a primary factor in the final decision to make use of information.

Information use in daily life (i.e., non-work situations) has social dimensions as well. Identification with a particular social group affects people's selection of information sources that are considered to be normal or appropriate. The small social worlds that people tend to inhabit work very much like IUEs, creating a context of socially acceptable information sources and creating norms of interaction with information. It is only by studying a particular social group closely that the informational norms of that group can be identified. For example, Elfreda Chatman (1991) conducted a study of a group of janitors and showed that their mutual distrust limited interpersonal information seeking and use, while information obtained from newspapers and television was identified as being more useful to this group.

A similar emphasis on the importance of social context in relation to information use has been proposed by Reijo Savolainen (1995), who suggests that habitus (a concept borrowed from Pierre Bourdieu) strongly influences information behavior and use. The term "habitus" refers to people's disposition to behave in particular ways according to their beliefs and attitudes, the material resources to which they have access, their social capital (e.g., contact networks, rights to control others' activities), their cultural and cognitive capital (e.g., knowledge, learning styles, attitudes), and their current life situations (e.g., health, lifecycle stage). While these ideas have yet to be applied fully to information use, it is clear that a person's contact networks, for example, would have a bearing on the range and quality of information sources that are available to that person. It is also clear that people's use of information sources varies according to their education level, because this variable affects their skills and abilities, as well as their experience and comfort with particular information sources (e.g., online sources).

Barriers to Information Use

The reasons why people do not use information are many and complex. Laura Brick (1999) conducted a study of the non-use of information that was available in a workplace business library. She found that non-users were unaware of the information that was available to them, that they tended to delegate information searching to subordinates (who may or may not use the library), and that they were not information conscious (i.e., they did not see the need to obtain information for their daily tasks and decisions).

Barriers to information use in organizational settings have been the focus of much study related to knowledge management. Thomas Davenport (1997) argues that organizations often emphasize access to information that is potentially useful, rather than conducting thorough needs assessments to determine what information and what sources the organizations' workers actually find useful. Formal information systems in organizations are often poorly designed, making them challenging and inconvenient to use. Frequently, organizations underestimate the time that is required to implement an information system, and most important, the time that is required to teach workers how to use the system effectively. As a result, many organizational information systems are not integrated into existing workflow, so they remain peripheral to the workers' decision making. Optimizing information use in organizations requires attention to organizational culture and politics, as well. If workers tend to seek information from superiors in order to ingratiate themselves, eliminating that need by introducing a formal information system may disrupt established patterns of social interaction. Additionally, formal information systems may clash with established organizational practices such as information hoarding or filtering—two techniques that are used to establish and maintain organizational power.

Many personal barriers to information use have also been identified. Among these are not knowing what information is needed or available (i.e., people do not know what they do not know). People may not know what question to ask (e.g., a person may lack the necessary mental model or context of a problem to know how to articulate a request for help). People often do not know where to look (i.e., a person may have a question or problem but not know where to turn for help). People often do not know that sources exist (e.g., many people are pleasantly surprised by the availability of useful information in public libraries). The information needed may not exist (e.g., somebody may need a particular aggregate of data in order to make a decision, but that data has never been collected). A person may lack communication skills (e.g., a person may not have the language skills required to ask for help, or a person may display unusual social behavior that gets in the way of communication). A person may lack confidence or ability (e.g., government information available only through online kiosks will be inaccessible to people who lack the confidence or the technical skills to use computers). People may be discouraged by sources that they approach (e.g., they may encounter frustrating delays in getting the help they need, and simply give up, or they may receive inaccurate or inappropriate information). Finally, a common barrier is information scatter, which is confronted particularly in the case of complex information needs (when needed information is available only by using several different sources).

A lack of trust in an information source may prevent somebody from making use of that source. For example, Yin Zhang (1999) conducted a study of a technically savvy set of people (i.e., academics in the field of library and information science) and showed that only a minority is satisfied with electronic sources for research purposes. This is true largely because there are few useful Internet web-sites for research purposes, websites are unstable (i.e., they tend to come and go), and websites are not sufficiently reliable. These scholars who took part in this study believe that there is little quality control for web resources, and they feel the need to judge the authority and validity of these resources. They believe that the level of scholarship demonstrated in web resources is generally low and that the web is not well organized for retrieval (i.e., there is a need for better indexing and structuring, and there is a need for more standards). Furthermore, they point to a lack of social norms for using and citing electronic sources. Thus, for this group, these factors act as barriers to using the Internet for research purposes.

The Role of Information Literacy

More generally, people's use of information depends on their level of information literacy. Being information literate (i.e., having the ability to make efficient and effective use of information sources) implies a wide range of skills, and lacking any one of these could impede information use. To be information literate in the industrialized world in the twenty-first century, a person should have specific online searching skills (e.g., the ability to select appropriate search terminology, to construct a logical search strategy, and to evaluate information appropriately). In addition, people need to understand their needs in informational terms, know what information might help them, identify potentially appropriate sources, and understand how to evaluate the information that they find (i.e., on the basis of its authority and credibility, intended audience, quality or accuracy, objectivity, and scope). In order to be effective information users, people need to know how to organize and synthesize information logically (i.e., to construct meaning from it) and how to apply information to add value and create a quality product. In addition, people need to know how to share information appropriately and to use information and information technology responsibly and ethically.

All of these abilities require reasoning, the ability to use libraries and computers, critical thinking, creative thinking, communication, and social skills. Effective information use is also associated with self-efficacy (i.e., a belief that one can achieve a goal), an ethical stance, integrity, and trust. Thus, the three skill domains that are involved are the cognitive domain (e.g. skills in analysis, comprehension, synthesis, evaluation, explanation, and transformation), the affective domain (e.g., commitment, perseverance, confidence, curiosity, motivation), and the physical domain (e.g., operating tools such as computer hardware and software, and book indexes). When people are information literate, many of the barriers to effective information use may be overcome.

Making Information Useful

Barriers to information use also may be minimized by increasing the potential usefulness of the information itself. In addition to being relevant, information must ideally be accurate, precise, complete, reliable, communicated appropriately, timely, detailed, understandable, and consistent. However, even when information meets all of these criteria, there is still no guarantee that it will be used. Making use of information is an individual decision, and the use made of it may bear little resemblance to the information provider's intentions. It is apparent, for example, that regardless of efforts that are made to make information useful, people are more likely to use information that fits with their current understanding or point of view and to ignore information that challenges their closely held beliefs or values.

Information system designers have developed principles that are known to enhance the usefulness of information and to increase the probability of its being used. These principles include presenting information in a form and at a level that is familiar and comfortable to people. For example, consider attempts to dispense information about government programs and services to the inhabitants of a rural community in a developing country. Providing an Internet kiosk as a means of providing the information is less likely to lead to the use of that information by the local inhabitants than if local opinion leaders are used to relay the information in face-to-face encounters. If individuals or groups receive appropriate information via an appropriate channel, the chances of that information being useful are greatly increased.

Another way to enhance the usefulness of information (by increasing understanding) is to present the information frequently and in a variety of formats. For example, politicians use repeated advertising spots in a variety of media to increase the chances of people noticing them. Graphics are used in textual materials to enhance understanding, to provide additional information, and to increase interest. Appealing to different learning styles by using a variety of presentation methods will increase the probability of the information being used by the intended audience.


Information use has yet to be thoroughly researched. Nevertheless, it is generally accepted that information use is personal and therefore subjective and that it is naíve to assume that if people have access to information they will use it. People's use of various types of information sources varies according to individual factors such as their cognitive style and information literacy skills. Information use can be instrumental as in organizational decision-making, or affective, as when information is used to motivate. The importance of context and the specific task or question for which information is used are as important as individual factors in predicting information use. People's occupational or peer groups, their workplace settings and the tasks associated with those settings, and cultural norms and expectations all influence information use. People face a range of barriers to accessing and using information, including individual and structural barriers. However, attention to information provision and design of information systems can do much to ameliorate these obstacles.

See also:Economics of Information; Human-Computer Interaction; Internet and the World Wide Web; Knowledge Management; Reference Services and Information Access; Retrieval of Information.


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Heidi Julien