Recognizing and Overcoming Barriers

Pattern number within this pattern set: 
Joan C. Durrance
University of Michigan School of Info
Toward Effective Use of Digital Communications

Despite the lauding of the Internet's potential for strengthening physical communities by facilitating information flow about local resources and civic interaction through formal and informal channels, findings from recent studies (e.g., Kraut et. al., 1999; Nie & Erbring, 2000) suggest that Internet use has the reverse effect by isolating individuals and decreasing interpersonal interaction. This finding gains greater significance given Putnam’s (1995, 2000) observation regarding the decline of social capital in physical communities. Thus, life in an electronic world poses several fundamental problems for research. Three such questions that are only beginning to be addressed include:

· How do individuals use the Internet when seeking information for daily situations?
· What barriers do they encounter?
· What are the benefits of CNs?



Past studies suggest that equitable and easy access to information about local resources can help people deal with the myriad of situations that arise through everyday living such as finding a new job, locating daycare services, dealing with grief or divorce, moving to a new neighborhood, finding where to get your car fixed, etc. (Chatman, 1996, 2000; Chen & Hernon, 1982; Dervin, et al., 1976; Durrance, 1984a; Durrance, 1988; Harris & Dewdney, 1994; Pettigrew, 2000; Savolainen, 1995). However, these same studies reveal that all people--despite their education, financial status, occupation, or social ties


Patterns to Barriers to Using CI Systems

Barriers, a key concept in the sense-making framework, represent the ways in which people are prevented or blocked from seeking information successfully. By identifying barriers, one can devise ways of improving the design of digital CI systems that facilitate users' information behavior. Our respondents were asked several open-ended questions that addressed types of barriers. Specifically, we asked them to explain what, if anything, would make it easier for them to find what they’re looking for, and to describe any past actions they might have taken regarding their search topic. In spite of respondents’ confidence in their abilities to get quality information, along the way they encountered a range of barriers to access.

Barriers, including cultural, financial, geographic, and physical, further challenge users with successfully seeking CI such that they cannot always obtain information about needed services or participate fully in civic life. While information technologies hold significant promise for linking individuals with information and one another, they are foreshadowed by the potential for a deeper digital divide between the information rich and the information poor.

Hence, our research questions focused on the types of situations that prompt individuals to use (and not use) digital CI systems for everyday help, the specific types of CI that they are seeking, the types of barriers users encounter and how they deal with them, and how they are helped by networked CI.

A major pattern of barriers that we identified was labeled “Information-related.” It contained several subcategories:

· Poor Retrieval—Information Overload and Low Precision: Due to poor search engines and site indexing, users retrieved too much CI and were challenged with discerning what was relevant to their search;

· Poor Interface Design: Users were often daunted by a site’s layout (appeared too busy, too many bells and whistles, poor font and color choice, especially for those who are color-blind) and the amount of text displayed on a single screen;

· Poorly Organized (Classified): Users did not find CI where they expected to find it, and there was little cross-referencing;

· Out-of-date and Inaccurate Information: CI was either out-of-date or there was no way of discerning when a page was created or last updated. Inaccuracies in content were also noted;

· Authority: Without proper identifiers and author credentials or association endorsements, users found it difficult to gauge the quality of the CI source, i.e., whether they should trust the CI (and its source) or not;

· Missing: Users sometimes commented that information was missing although it was described as existing at the beginning of a page or document;

· Dead Links: Users were frustrated when finding a link to a page or site that they believe would be highly relevant to their information need, only to find that the link was inactive or otherwise unavailable;

· Language Used: Beyond most information appearing in English only, some sites contained information written in jargon or at a level too high to understand;

· Security: Users want strong evidence that the information they submit and retrieve is confidential (“reassured security,” as one user phrased it);

· Specificity: Users wanted to search for information at the neighborhood level and to find people;

· Non-anticipatory Systems: uses indicated that their information behavior would be greatly facilitated if CI systems were smart enough either to anticipate their next information need (based on the need posed to the system by typed query or by point and click) or a related information need. All too often users described how the site they found was not quite what they were looking for but they did not know where to go to next.

These information-related barriers are highly significant because they represent specific impediments that users encounter when seeking information. The pattern, above, is seen as a ladder with use possible only after overcoming the particular set of barriers encountered by an individual. Job seekers, for example, feel that they cannot get ahead unless they have access to a computer, not only so they can become more computer literate, but also because that’s how they perceive people learn about job opportunities these days. For any one situation or information need, a user might be confronted by several barriers, which, collectively, can overwhelm the user and prevent him or her from locating needed information.

Examining barriers from the sense-making framework we see a set of barriers that make if difficult to get and use information. These barriers were labeled: technological (e.g., slow connection speeds and software, unavailable or incompatible systems), economic (e.g., users could not afford computing equipment or online access), geographic (connectivity was unavailable or people lived far away from a public access site), search skills (users did not know how to search the system/Internet or how to use advanced methods), cognitive (users did not understand how the Internet works in terms of indexing and search engines, how links are created, who creates and manages the information, how sites are updated, etc.), and psychological (users expressed a lack of confidence in their own ability to find needed information, i.e., they internalized search failures and believed the reason they could not find something was because they were unable to carry out the search successfully).

The patterns shown above use the Dervin framework as the base. Needs are seen on the left and outcomes on the right. Barriers are depicted in the center of the pattern as (as seen in the Dervin framework) gaps.

These barriers point to problems as well as potential solutions for improving the usability and helpfulness of digital CI systems (discussed in Pettigrew & Durance, 2001). Despite these information-related barriers, some respondents were highly confident that they could find what they needed through the community network. They tended to perceive their community network as a ubiquitous source and gateway to all knowledge. In this sense we identified a mismatch between what users think they can obtain via the Internet and the likelihood that that information exists and can be easily located. This finding expands on a principle of everyday information behavior: that a mismatch exists between what users believe service providers offer and what they actually do (Harris & Dewdney, 1994).


Solutions: Toward Patterns of success

In spite of the barriers encountered by users of the Internet, Community Networks are valued and used by the adult population, and enable individuals, from near and far, to find information about local services and events, and facilitate different types of information seeking for everyday living. Although many barriers are associated with digital CI system access, these same barriers suggest optimal solutions that may assist in creating even stronger and more information literate communities.

We found that each community network reflects the mission of its parent organization, and, just as importantly, the knowledge, skills, and values of librarians. The leaders of these best practice community networks are able to assess situations and local conditions. The actual community network model developed results from a variety of community and library circumstances and consisted of a range of content development and service considerations. Leaders of the three case-study community networks recognize the need to provide training and technical assistance to community organizations and non-profit groups; how they do it varies. They are likely to convene or otherwise bring community organizations together (through public meetings, listservs, etc). They find different ways to show community groups the value of developing relevant content and linking to related organizations. Community network leaders foster communication among community organizations; communication leads to the creation of new partnerships among community groups. The community network is a mechanism for modeling activities that result in increased collaboration, volunteerism, training, and other benefits to the community.

The community network users in our study included men and women of all ages. They sought CI for personal and work-related situations with an emphasis on CI about employment, volunteerism, and social service availability, along with local history and genealogy, local news, computer and technical information, and other people (residing both within and beyond the community). Users’ situations were complex and usually required multiple pieces and sources of CI, hence they often tried other sources (friends, newspapers, telephone directories, etc.,) before turning to the network. In this sense, we learned that the Internet has not replaced the role of social ties in citizens’ information behavior; instead, it is supplementing their information-seeking. Users also tended to be highly confident that they could find what they needed through the Internet, which led to our identification of some mismatch between what users think they can obtain and the likelihood that that CI exists and can be easily located. In addition to facilitating proxy search where users search for CI on behalf of another person (but not always at that person’s behest), we found evidence that the Internet has created “glocalization” (in Wellman’s terms) where it is being used for both local and long﷓distance interaction.

While most barriers that prevented people from successfully seeking CI were “information-related,” others pertained to technology and search skill levels, economics, geography, cognitive understanding, and psychological factors. Despite facing barriers our respondents indicated that they benefited from an increased ability to access CI, and believe the community network helped them access hard-to-get and higher quality information more easily with decreased transaction costs (time and money). Thus it is clear that community networks provide access to CI that previously had been scattered and difficult to use. People reported a number of personal benefits including: increased skill and confidence, employment and educational gains, increased knowledge of community, and benefits that accrued to their family, friends, and neighborhood.

We learned that community networks have a multiplier effect. Not only do they bring benefits directly to individual users, they also benefit community organizations that reach out to specialized segments of the community (such as the disabled, the homeless, the mental health community, those who serve parents or the unemployed). We also found that community networks built connections among community-serving organizations. Both citizens and non-profit organizations reported that their community network helped them overcome various barriers, including geographical, digital divide, and personal confidentiality concerns. Non-profit organizations reported that involvement in the community network resulted in an increased effectiveness that, in turn, resulted in an increased ability to be more responsive to their constituency and the community.

The multiplier effect is also seen in the community network’s effect on the way organization leaders approach their responsibilities. We found that a community network can help community organization leaders think like information professionals—especially librarians—and thus take a broader view of the community, learning how to visualize how their organization (and its information) relates to the information and services of other groups. This results in an increased respect for the knowledge and skills that librarians bring to the community. Finally we learned that a community network can contribute in various ways to community building by fostering civic engagement through volunteerism and other means, and increase a sense of community among organizations and individuals.

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