Characterizing environmental information users


  • Presented at ASIST 2010, October 22–27, 2010 Pittsburgh, PA, USA.


The information seeking and use characteristics of three groups of individuals interested in environmental information are described using a data consolidation technique known in the human-computer interaction field as “persona”. These user archetypes show differences in the information sources sought, information behaviors shown, and in the information products generated by researchers, environmental educators, and members of the public involved in the environmental movement.


Much of the literature on the use of scientific information from the 1960's and 1970's looked at the information needs and behaviors of research scientists. However, at the present time, part of the growth of interest in environmental information comes from other groups. This paper asks if the sources and uses of environmental information sought by researchers differ from those sought by other audiences, using as a test case the National Biological Information Infrastructure's Southern Appalachian Information Node (NBII-SAIN).


The injunction to “Know your users” is at the heart of user-centered design. Normore (2008) has suggested that we need to “nuance” our ideas about who the user may be and what the user may do. This poster focuses on two ways in which this might be accomplished. First, the type of scientific information must be considered. This follows from a long history of research on scientific information needs and behavior and more currently on the theories proposed as domain analytic approaches by Hjørland and Albrechtsen (1995). This study looks at users of information about the natural environment. The second area of focus is on features related to the context of use, including the objects, knowledge, practice and communities in which users reside (Bishop et al., 2003). This study looks at the community of origin for the user groups described and related resources and practices.


While the term “persona” has appeared in the vocabulary of a number of disciplines, its use in the human-computer interaction field originated in the work of Alan Cooper (1999). Ideally, a persona is an archetype representing normative user characteristics, behavior, and values and is created from previously gathered user data. Persona have become a widely used method in industry for improving communication between those in direct contact with users and other members of a system development team.


User Groups

Three populations were identified and confirmed with the NBII-SAIN Node Manager. The first user group was composed of five environmental researchers in universities and research centers. The second was a group of five environmental educators. The third group was three people interested in environmental issues but not professionally involved in environmental education or research.


Interviews were conducted by the members of a graduate class in human-computer interaction at a southeastern American university. Class members were trained to conduct semi-structured interviews and formed into groups corresponding to the user groups above. Each class member conducted one interview which was then reviewed by the group which then extracted themes informally and used those themes to create a persona representing their user group.


Researcher persona

Dr. Joe Smith, a Biology professor specializing in Ecology, has taught for 3 years. His early interest in biology and love for the outdoors was supported by the guidance of high school and college instructors. He has strong opinions about the need to preserve the environment, and about the dearth of resources currently available to ensure such preservation.

In locating sources for his research, Dr. Smith uses both digital and analog information sources extensively, but prefers the digital format. He makes use of scholarly journals and consults data available online through research centers and federal and state agencies. He commonly finds information through internal, agency-only databases. He is familiar with state and regional regulations, technical specifications, and white papers. Dr. Smith is accustomed to creating and sharing his own information in a variety of formats. His responsibilities as professor have led him to create a great amount of educational materials, such as lesson plans as well as conference and presentation documents. He frequently publishes his own data sets and creates internal data sets. Dr. Smith commonly writes technical reports and memos on data collected, giving recommendations to government agencies. He publishes on his own website and edits relevant Wikipedia articles.

Environmental educator persona

Jenny is passionate about the environment and about people, having graduated with a degree in natural science. She enjoys her work developing educational programs for a regional nature center. Combining her personal interest and background in the environment with the job of creating educational programming allows Jenny the opportunity to rely heavily on knowledge she already has, to refine it, and then share it with her audience. As an outdoor enthusiast, Jenny has a good base of knowledge of what she will be teaching and uses both online resources and print materials to aid in developing the presentation. She tends to rely on websites she knows and has used before to find reliable information, particularly regional information. She communicates with colleagues on newsgroups or listservs. If there is a topic that Jenny is researching that she is less familiar with, she'll usually perform a Google search for resources. She contributes to the newsletter and website, responding to follow-up questions from recent visitors or students, and contributing her knowledge and expertise to fellow employees. Jenny spends some time keeping up with her field by reading popular environmental magazines.

Environmental enthusiast persona

Bob has worked in offices most of his career but now also volunteers with a local non-profit organization that advocates for backpacking. He started out with an undergraduate degree in biology, with a concentration in ecology. He has always enjoyed the outdoors and found it important for recreation and education. He believes that “getting people outdoors, into the actual environment, is the best way to make them feel a connection” with their area—with nature and the environment. While he reads magazines and newsletters about the environment, he more often searches for information in Google or Yahoo! He uses websites that provide regional or other outdoor type information such as the state park website, the US national park website, and various outdoor organizations. Universities that have outdoor recreation departments also have useful information! In his time with the non-profit, he helps with the development of workshops and with the creation of their electronic newsletter since he has computer and document creation skills.


All three communities share an enthusiasm about the natural environment and environmental issues. It is common that this was expressed in their academic training. All three use the web as a key medium in their outreach.

They differ in a number of areas as well. Researchers exhibit their participation in the academic community through the intensity of their participation in teaching and research and in creating documents for peer-reviewed journals, as well as technical reports and memoranda. Neither the environmental educators nor the enthusiasts report extensive use of formal publications possibly because they lack access to them. For these communities, web searching and tools like listservs and email are key information sources. Both groups may be involved in creating educational materials and newsletters for interested members of the public but the environmental educators are responsible for making sure these programs and communication vehicles happen.

These data support the importance of the disciplinarity in identifying and describing users but suggest that there are key differences in information seeking and creation in communities within the environmental movement. Continued research is needed to find ways to identify and characterize key features that allow us to “nuance the user”.


I would like to thank the members of the University of Tennessee's IS 588 class Spring and Jean Freeney, SAIN Node Manager and her associates for their interest and assistance.