Research Conversation: Personal Information for A World As We Want It to Be

William Jones, one of the professors at the iSchool, gave a really interesting talk about the idea of personal information management and how to improve our ability to find the information we need. Jones is one of the lead researchers for the Keeping Found Things Found project, which is a project that I’ve had some interest in since I discovered it through my research on the iSchool itself.

Some notes from the presentation:

  • Why do we have folders?
    • From the audience: to organize data.
      • Why do we organize data?
        • To find/locate information.
    • As a quick reference into the materials we need.
    • As content metadata
  • Search on our own machines gives us the ability to get stuff the same way as on the Web, so why would there be resistance to this?
  • Audience member observation: There’s a difference between finding things and finding new stuff
  • Folders are a part of our interaction with data
  • Why do people use folders in so many diverse ways?
  • The Web is becoming an extension of ourselves (and of our personal information)
  • Capturing information is now very easy
  • Storage is now very cheap
  • Search makes retrieval of information easy (if it is properly indexes and if there’s some form of version control – search does no good if we’re looking for old versions of things we already have)
  • Information fragmentation – the idea that our information is now incredibly spread out – is a more recent problem than that of information overload, which has existed, one could argue, for centuries
  • Keeping Found Things Found project did three major studies:
    • How people keep information
    • How people re-locate information they have
    • How people organize their information
  • There is a lot of diversity in the way that people organize their information – why is this?
  • An audience member gave an example of using e-mail instead of favorites or bookmarks to manage their web site. When asked why, they explained that they didn’t want their favorites list to get too long or unmanageable.
  • What about the recall of information? KFTF participants were given a list of information they had accessed 3+ months ago and asked to relocate it quickly using whatever method they wanted. They were only given five minutes for the task. After that five minutes, it was found that there was a 95% successs rate in finding that information based on a list of particular conditions (what those conditions were wasn’t discussed in the talk). However, there were some issues with people trying to remember where that information was stored. It was also noted that “Do nothing” methods – where people had made no prior note as to where the information was located (methods like Google searching) won out over bookmarks and most other methods of information search and retrieval.
  • Fourteen participants were asked to give a tour of their folder/information organization on their computers. For every single participant, there was something where they said “this shouldn’t be here”, and a small number even had to stop the demonstration to move the information to the correct location.
  • An idea Jones suggested was that old information should slowly fade from view – it doesn’t get deleted, it just isn’t visible.
  • It’s easier to pay the small cost of not being able to find things immediately than to pay the larger cost of having to reorganize or clean out our information resources.
  • An audience member noted that economics can play a big role in how information is organized, especially in a work environment – if we get paid to do things quickly, our information organizational structure better make things easy to find!