ERCIM News No.33 - April 1998

PERSONA - from Maps to Social Interactions

by Kristina Höök and Catriona MaCaulay

The issue of how users can navigate their way through large information spaces is crucial to the ever expanding and interlinking of computer systems. Computer users live in a world of information spaces. One of the most critical activities which users need to undertake is to retrieve information from such spaces and thus the problem of how to help the user to navigate, explore and identify the objects of interest is critical to the success of the system. PERSONA, a long-term research i3 (European Network for Intelligent Information Interfaces) project between SICS and Napier University, seeks to develop our understanding of human activities in information spaces.

Whenever we present the problem of navigation in electronic worlds, the so-called 'lost in hyperspace' problem, there will always be one (male) engineer in the audience that suggests that users would be helped by an orientation map in the interface over the space. We always reply that this would all be well enough for those users who are already quite good at finding their way through the information spaces, since those have the cognitive abilities required to understand maps. But what about those users that have problems with orienting themselves in abstract information space as well as problems understanding maps? In our view, this points at the core problem for designers of navigational tools: there are large individual differences that cannot be evened out through adding overviews or maps. Instead we believe that we have to rethink our whole approach to design of information spaces.

So what can we add that would make navigation easier for those users who find it hard to navigate and understand maps and other overviews? If we look at how users navigate in the real world, in cities, in finding information in libraries, in finding their way through buildings, in choosing which television program to see, in deciding which medical doctor to see, etc, we see that this is often done through talking to other people.

There are several reasons why social navigation may be preferred over more spatially demanding methods. When we talk to someone else, the information we get back can be personalised to our needs. We are perhaps told a little bit more than exactly the information we asked for, or if the information provider knows us, the instructions may be adapted to fit our knowledge or assumed reasons for going to a particular place. The instructions are also adapted to the user in another sense in that they start from the point where the user is at, and is given in a sequential form (first go there, then go there). Social navigation also has another quality, in that we can judge to what extent the directions given can be trusted depending upon the credibility of the information provider. If I am provided with information on how to find a particularly good definition of some concept from a well-known researcher in my field, I will probably follow the advice, while if the information is given by someone not in my field, I might not even bother to look it up. Yet another aspect of social navigation is the form in which instructions are given, it will frequently be given in a verbal, dialogue-driven form, rather than an abstracted spatial form.

Following groups of people, for example, going through an airport, may also be considered as a form of social navigation, even if it does not pertain all the properties mentioned above. It does involve the matter of trust. It also provides the seeker with a sense of security: if all these people have chosen this route, it must be the right one. In general, navigation is a scary activity. Most people are scared of getting lost, and employs various methods to feel more secure. Talking to other people, seems to be one of the more reassuring methods. Social navigation will not replace the need for well-designed information spaces and navigational tools that assists users in forming models of the space. It would be stupid to replace alphabetical order in a library with chaos just because there is a librarian that knows the way around the chaos, whom a book borrower can talk to. Furthermore, for some applications, the main task of the user might in fact be to understand the layout and relationships in the space. What our goal is instead to broaden our view on the design space and include social navigation as one tool in the repertoire.

Socio-cultural Perspective

From a sociocultural perspective we might also consider the view that there is no such thing as a stable entity 'the individual'. Rather we might consider that individuals, cultural groups and differences are defined by context. Part of that context will arise from the socio-cultural-historical setting within which 'we' are situated. For example, feminist geographers have long considered the complex relationships between gender and space/place. Part of our project therefore will concern itself with investigating the implications for information space/social navigation design of taking just such a socio-cultural perspective. In so doing we will be recognising that design is not just about cognitive processes or technology, but about politics as well.

In the PERSONA project we are attempting to take a grip on the overall design problem of information spaces and navigational tools. We do so through two main lines of research. The first is concerned with finding a method by which a designer can analyse a targeted domain, its users, their tasks, etc, and determine whether there are navigational issues that needs to be resolved. We believe that navigation comes into play in many applications, not only in hypermedia, for example, in hierarchical file systems, in augmented realities (such as interactive museums), etc. The method will include making suggestions for good design possibilities.

The second line of research investigates the social navigation concept. Our goal is to define it in such a way that understand when and where it comes into play, and why it works better for certain individuals.

For both these research directions, we need to find evaluation criteria by which we can determine what signifies a successful navigation. Rather than relying on the traditional usability metrics, such as time spent, number of errors, etc, we would like to get at the underlying cognitive processes involved, as well as more qualitative measurements such as whether the user feels secure or not.

This article previously appeared in the first issue of i3magazine, November 1997. For more information on the PERSONA project, see

Please contact:

Kristina Höök - SICS
Tel: +46 8 752 1517

return to the contents page