Computer-Mediated Communication Magazine / Volume 1, Number 6 / October 1, 1994 / Page 13


Challenges for Web Information Providers

by John December (john@december.com)

Continued from page 12 / Link to article's front page

Toward Web Information Quality

Based on the above discussions of the need for information quality and my observations from my experience, this section presents an approach toward defining Web information quality.

Toward a Notion of Web Information Quality

Quality is a difficult term to define for a particular domain or product. Total Quality Management, derived from W. Edwards Deming's principles, includes ideas such as continuous improvement and multidisciplinary responsibility for improving a product. Information quality has much in common with product quality. Like a physical product, information should meet user needs (satisfy the customer). Implementing this principle in specific information development practices and web design features, however, is not so straightforward, as the type of needs a user has varies greatly from application to application. However, I propose this as a preliminary statement for web information quality:
Quality as a goal for Web information involves a continuous process of planning, analysis, design, implementation, and development to ensure that the information meets user needs in terms of both content and interface.

Thus, quality is more a process of continuous improvement rather than a set of the characteristics of a finished object (a web). Due to the dynamic nature of Web information and the context in which it exists, any outward sign of a web's quality can change over time even if the web itself doesn't change. In Part V of this book, "Weaving a Web," I describe a methodology for weaving a web using a user-centered, continuous process emphasis, with the goal of building up information so that it can lead to knowledge.

An overall principle such as the one I give above can guide an information developer to view quality as something emerging from processes. However, I can state more specific characteristics for the quality of products resulting from these processes. Quality Web information is:

  1. Correct. Within its stated scope, purpose, and the context of its presentation, Web information should give the user cues as to its purpose, scope, and status. Developers should ensure that the information presented in the web stays consistent with these stated characteristics. For example, OncoLink (see Chapter 26, "Science and Technology") is peer-reviewed, but functions in a specific role within the medical community (not as a substitute for professional medical care). In other words, Web information must not only be factually correct (to the degree its users require), but also include information presented with cues that help the user know the web's particular definition and scope of "correctness" as well as appropriate use.

  2. Accessible. While information presented with a web, when viewed with multimedia equipment, can present a rich experience for the user, web developers must ensure that these "bells and whistles" don't make important information inaccessible to some users. Web developers should know their audience's requirements, but need not abandon the use of graphics or sound to conform to the least capable browser. However, if significant segments of the target audience do not have multimedia capabilities (or want such features), the web should be designed so that important information is not masked behind features the users canít or won't access.

  3. Usable. From the functional perspective, the web should deliver the information users need with a minimum amount of clutter, in a design that captures the information taking full advantage of hypertext. This means that text is not in one monstrous file (as my CMC information sources file was in its state before I "segmented" it). Rather, the pages in the web should aim to capture a single unit of user attention--not with so little information that the user has to "thrash" through multiple links in the web to find meaning, but not with so much information that the user is overwhelmed by a single page.

  4. Understandable. The web should contain cues and employ composition principles that build and shape meaning. Web developers can use techniques from writing methodologies used in paper and other media--audience analysis, rhetorical devices (for example, parallelism, analogies) and technical communication techniques (for example, chunking information, cueing the reader, ordering information). Hypertext is not constrained to be linear--however, in local doses and at surface particular layers, hypertext is linear prose.
    More accurately, hypertext can be thought of as text that is not constrained in a single expressive object (such as a web) or to a single perspective for meaning. Web-based hypertext is unbounded text that derives meaning from its links that unendingly branch into Webspace.

    Making meaning at a local level within hypertext, however, still involves crafting prose (or using visual or aural elements) to create meaning. To do this, a developer needs to use effective composition principles as opposed to forcing a user to "construct" meaning by decoding unorganized pieces of information.

  5. Meaningful. Within its stated scope and context of presentation, a quality web should somehow reach for a significance beyond itself, a meaning that can help a user form new relationships among information. From these new relationships, new knowledge or insights may form. For example, Le WebLouvre, is an online art gallery, containing online exhibits and a tour of Paris. While the "information" presented by art is not as obviously "useful" as scientific information in webs, it nonetheless functions as art does in our culture--evoking a feeling of human identification such as emotion or association.
    Thus, "meaning" is not purely a transfer of information content, but emerges as a result of encountering that information. A web should not merely present information, but assist users in analyzing and interpreting that information within a larger context.

    In fact, this contextualizing aspect of meaning is one of the strengths of the Web itself.

    Continued on page 14

    Copyright © 1994 Sams Publishing. All rights reserved. Printed by Permission.


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