Section 3.4. The People Problem


3.4. The People Problem

Early studies of information retrieval systems featured quantitative approaches characteristic of the physical sciences. Mathematical formulas for precision and recall created an aura of objectivity for the nascent field of information science. And yet behind every formula lurked a variable that resisted isolation. Today we call this infuriating variable "the user" and we recognize that research must integrate rather than isolate the goals, behaviors, and idiosyncrasies of the people who use the systems.

Upon admitting the people problem, relevance was the first casualty, for measures of relevance are highly subjective. Ask individuals to evaluate the relevance of search results, and their responses will vary according to what they already know and what they want to know. Even the same individual may evaluate the same results differently as her knowledge and interest changes over time. Now this doesn't mean we should dismiss the metrics of precision and recall. For defined audiences and contexts (e.g., engineers using the HP intranet), sufficient agreement among users exists to make relevance measures meaningful. But we should proceed with an understanding that relevance is subjective, situational, and dynamic. Like beauty, relevance exists in the eye of the beholder.

Perhaps the most important thing we know about users is that they vigorously embrace what our friend George Kingsley Zipf called the Principle of Least Effort :

Each individual will adopt a course of action that will involve the expenditure of the probably least average of his work (by definition, least effort).

This fits with Calvin Mooers' insight that people will not seek information that makes their jobs harder (even if it may benefit the organization they work for). And it explains the relentless migration to more accessible, usable information systems. Why visit the library when Google's on your desktop? In fact, numerous studies have shown users are often willing to sacrifice information quality for accessibility.[*] This fast food approach to information consumption drives librarians crazy. "Our information is healthier and tastes better too" they shout. But nobody listens. We're too busy Googling.

[*] "Seeking Information In Order to Produce Information: An Empirical Study at Hewlett Packard Labs" by Sandra Hirsh and Jamie Dinkleacker. Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, July 2004.

However, before we grow too smug about our instinctual "optimization algorithms," perhaps we should question the sanity of this fast food diet. After all, there's a fine line between the wisdom of crowds and the ignorance of mobs. Maybe our willingness to trade quality for accessibility is not entirely rational. In fact, there's a whole lot of evidence that human behavior is often not rational or optimal. At best, we "satisfice" under conditions of "bounded rationality." Nobel Laureate Herbert Simon coined these terms in the 1950s to explain the divergence between economic models built on theories of rational decision-making and the unruliness of reality. People are not perfect nor perfectly predictable. Any model that assumes otherwise is doomed to failure.

More recently, research in human-computer interaction has further exposed the soft underbelly of the people problem. A Stanford study entitled "Silicon Sycophants " showed that people respond positively to flattery from computers.[] In a series of tests, users rated system performance more highly when the system said nice things about the user. This held true even when users were told to expect gratuitous flattery. In another Stanford experiment, Clifford Nass showed that people are polite to computers.Emotional Design which presents scientific evidence that attractive things work better. Since being happy broadens our thought processes and facilitates creative thinking, attractive products that make us happy can improve our ability to use them. In effect, they work better because we work better. Small gifts (and flattery) can have similar positive effects. But why are we so susceptible to these superficial elements? How can such smart beings be so shallow?

[] "Silicon Sycophants: the Effects of Computers that Flatter by B.J. Fogg and Clifford Nass (1997). International Journal of Human-Computer Studies, vol. 46.

[*] "Etiquette Equality: Exhibitions and Expectations of Computer Politeness" by Clifford Nass. Communications of the ACM, April 2004.

The answers reside in the fields of neuroscience and evolutionary psychology, both of which strive to discover and understand the design of the human mind. In Mind Wide Open, Steven Johnson takes us on a tour of today's cutting-edge brain research. He explains that the brain is "an ecosystem with modules simultaneously competing and relying on one another" and notes that "a fundamental tension in the human brain lies in the battle between the amygdala and the neocortexthe emotional center wrestling for control with the seat of reason." In other words, rationality must compete with what we affectionately call our "lizard brain" and rationality doesn't always win. In fact, as Don Norman notes:

Much of human behavior is subconscious, beneath conscious awareness. Consciousness comes late, both in evolution and also in the way the brain processes information; many judgments have already been determined before they reach consciousness.[]

] This is where neuroscience meets evolutionary psychology, a relatively new field concisely described by Nigel Nicholson of the London Business School:

New fields don't emerge in a flash, and evolutionary psychologysometimes called modern Darwinism is no exception. But over the past several years, evolutionary psychology as a discipline has gathered both momentum and respect. A convergence of research and discoveries in genetics, neuropsychology, and paleobiology, among other sciences, evolutionary psychology holds that although human beings today inhabit a thoroughly modern world of space exploration and virtual realities, they do so with the ingrained mentality of Stone Age hunter-gatherers.[]

] "How Hardwired is Human Behavior?" by Nigel Nicholson (1998). In other words, you can take the person out of the Stone Age, but you can't take the Stone Age out of the person. Our neural circuits and natural instincts were designed to solve problems faced by our ancestors over millions of years of evolution. More than 99% of our species' evolutionary history (about 10 million years) was spent living in hunter-gatherer societies. The world we knowfilled with roads, grocery stores, factories, schools, cell phones, web sites, and nation stateshas lasted for only the blink of an eye. Agriculture emerged only 10,000 years ago. The industrial revolution is a mere 200 years old. The information age has just begun. We have transformed our environment but not ourselves. Technology moves fast. Evolution moves slow.

In exploring the managerial implications of evolutionary psychology, Nicholson also sheds light on the information sharing behavior we call gossip :

The individuals who ruled the clan and controlled the resources were always changing. Survivors were those who were savvy enough to anticipate power shifts and swiftly adjust to them...They were savvy because they engaged in, and likely showed a skill for, gossip. Even in today's office environment, we can observe that expert gossips time and again know key information before everyone else.[*]

[*] Nicholson (1998), p. 141.

Despite huge investments in information and communication technology, we still rely heavily on informal person-to-person networks known as "the grapevine ." And we often trust this "unofficial news" more than the "official story." Of course, we've co-opted the technology infrastructure, extending the locus of gossip from the water cooler to cyberspaceemail, instant messaging, cell phones, text messaging, listservs, weblogsat the heart of many of today's killer applications lies the power and prevalence of gossip. It may not be ideal with respect to ethics or efficiency, but it's the way people are wired, and the blueprint is ancient and immutable. Politicians capitalize on this quality of human nature with grassroots, word-of-mouth campaigns. Advertisers embrace viral marketing methods that spread contagious memes through social networks. And information innovators from Amazon and Google to Flickr (Figure 3-5) and del.icio.us tap into the gift of gossip and the power of popularity to inspire participation and improve information retrieval.

But perhaps retrieval isn't the best word to describe the myriad ways we interact with information today. After all, thanks to Moore's Law, our environment has changed dramatically since the days of punch cards and mainframes. And in keeping with Mooers' Law, we are now more willing to

Figure 3-5. Flickr is a collaborative, highly contagious, metadata-driven, web-based image sharing and retrieval application


embrace the social and psychological dimensions of information seeking behavior. We need a phrase and a field that remembers the past, fits the present, and anticipates the future. In short, we need information interaction .