Magazine article Computers in Libraries

Creating User-Friendly Electronic Information Systems

Magazine article Computers in Libraries

Creating User-Friendly Electronic Information Systems

Article excerpt

Interactive assistance is the next step in the creation of useful electronic information systems.

The future of any automated information systems, whether they are World Wide Web servers or online public access catalogs, will have to include "interactive assistance" features. In this article, I'll review the definition of information systems, describe the concept of interactive assistance, describe bow it relates to information systems, and point out a few prototypical examples.

For the purposes of this article, an information system is any collection of organized value-added data. In our world, information systems abound. They include things such as books, billboards, libraries, the dashboard of your car, or a World Wide Web server.

The effectiveness of an information system is directly related to its size and to how well it satisfies its users' information needs. This effectiveness can be characterized by the system's readability, browsability, searchability, and finally, interactive assistance. We'll look at each one:

Readability connotes well-implemented graphic design and visual appeal or practicality. The dashboard of your car had better be very easy to read. A magazine article had better be inviting or it is less likely to be read. Traditional card catalog cards rated very poorly when it came to readability.

As the size of an information system grows, so does the need for browsability. In other words, as the number of items in the information system increases, so does the need to logically organize and classify the items in the collection. Tables of contents in books serve this purpose as well as the top-most subject classifications of services like Yahoo! or the 10 primary subjects of the Dewey Decimal Classification System.

Searchability overcomes some of the problems of purely classified systems by providing direct access to particular items as well as creating dynamic collections of otherwise dissimilar items. The function is similar to the indexes of books. The downside of searchability is that it requires users to articulate their information need and to formulate it in terms of the system's query language.

No matter how well a large information system exemplifies readability, browsability, and searchability, there are always to going to be people who cannot locate the information they seek even though it exists within the information system. The purpose of interactive assistance is to reduce this possibility. The concept is nothing new. After all, it is one of the primary purposes of librarianship. It is usually called "reference," and it has been implemented through face-to-face interviews and telephone communication.

While the largest and most familiar information systems like Yahoo!, our OPACs, CNET, or A2Z exemplify varying degrees of readability, browsability, and searchability, they could all use a healthy dose of interactive assistance. Interactive assistance is not just online help or instructions on' how to use this book." Interactive assistance provides customized help for particular users in particular situations. Put another way, interactive assistance adds the next level of intelligence to information systems. Interactive assistance does not necessarily mean artificial intelligence or expert systems, but that would be nice. Interactive assistance is simply a way of providing specialized help for specialized situations.

Interactive assistance can be proactive or reactive. Proactive interactive assistance queries users for their information needs. It analyzes the answers to the queries and either formulates possible solutions to the information need or continues the query process. A reactive assistance model would only provide possible solutions after being asked questions by the users. The difference between these two models is similar to the difference between browsability and searchability. Both browsability and proactive assistance lay out ready-made solutions or information paths. …

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