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August 2015

Reflection on the Principle of Least Effort

In the eighth chapter of Library Research Models, Thomas Mann explores the scholarship written on the “Principle of Least Effort,” an observation that researchers will generally choose easily accessible resources of lower quality over better resources which are harder to obtain. Drawing from his examination of these sources, Mann argues that system developers should take the “Least Effort” principle as a factor in the design of information systems. This idea is upheld by Chapter Two of Elaine Svenonius’s The Intellectual Foundation of Information Organization. Svenonius discusses and lays out bibliographic objectives centered entirely around a user’s needs and information. The underlying drive in her article is that users must always be properly served and put first when designing systems. The high value Svenonius places on user needs offers a natural response to the information Mann sets forth. If users are unlikely to do extra work to find obscure but excellent sources, then the system should be constructed to make the best information the most readily available for them. Somewhat more complex is the relationship between Mann’s “slanted” systems and Svenonius’s “minimally featured” systems. Certainly a system which is less carefully indexed is more likely to make it difficult for researchers to find more obscure information (meaning, since they will exert the least amount of effort, they are likely to never see it at all). However, as Svenonius admits, not all systems need to be as carefully indexed. If what users truly need are the most shallow and easily found items of information, then the nominal indexing serves the user’s needs. In the eyes of both authors, providing this service is always the deciding factor.

To a lesser extent, Mann’s chapter also ties in with Marcia J. Bates’s article, “The Invisble Substrate of Information Science.” In writing, Bates sets out three main questions of information science. The second two, the social and design questions, especially relate to Mann. Bates agrees with Mann in that information systems designers need to know answers to such social topics as how people look for and respond to information. A good example of information sources that provide answers for that are the scholarly surveys Mann cites. These reveal a particular principle of human-information interaction, that of the “least effort.” As both authors note, professionals designing systems to provide users with information need to factor this information in their designs. This then pushes the discussion into the realm of Bates’s design question. How can the system designer make sure the user is getting the best information in the most efficient manner? By designing the system to make the best information the easiest to find, keeping “the principle of least effort” in mind.

Mann’s overview is an excellent piece of writing. His diction is scholarly, but not overly didactic, and he makes good use of illustrations (such as the pinball machine) to both clarify his ideas and keep the reader’s attention. His conclusions are also very much strengthened by his thoroughness in touching upon studies from across a broad range of academic disciplines. This shows that the principle in question is common to all researchers, both professional and amateur, and lends authority to Mann’s resulting commentary.

Organization of Information

This blog is for the class Organization of Information. There will be all sorts of lovely organized information posted in the coming weeks.

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