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62nd IFLA General Conference - Conference Proceedings - August 25-31, 1996

A Methodology for the Identification of Information Needs of Users

F.J. Devadason
Associate Director, Center for Library and Information Resources
Asian Institute of Technology, G.P.O. Box 2754
Bangkok 10501


P. Pratap Lingam
Data Bank and Document Management Specialist (UN)
Bank of Guyana, P.O. Box : 1003
George Town


Identification of information needs is essential to the design of information systems in general and to the provision of effective information services in particular. But it has been found to be a difficult task as it is almost an investigative or detective work. In order to identify information needs one should adopt various methods to gather information on the various factors that influence the information needs. No single method or tool will serve entirely. A careful selection and blending of several techniques depending on the user whose need is being studied is necessary. In fact, the "information needs identifier" should study, prepare and equip him/her self thoroughly to perform the task of identifying information needs. A formal step by step procedure which can be adopted to study the information needs of a majority of users is proposed in this paper. Besides gathering and recording the information needs, a careful analysis is to be made to distil actual needs from the data gathered. It is hoped that the methodology discussed here, would be easy to perceive and be translatable into practice. It is to be noted that the methodology would become clearer and clearer as each step is put into practice enhancing the understanding of the scenario and help in fine tuning the procedure to suit particular situations. Moreover it has been found that the proposed methodology is not only useful in identifying the information needs, but also has a profound impact on finding ways and means of satisfying such needs. In other words, the information needs identifier would discover, as a bye product, several ideas, tools, methods and techniques of satisfying the users in meeting their needs.



The turbulent and changing information environment calls for continual research to ensure that the needs of the information users are satisfactorily met and that the information professionals acquire the required expertise to cope with the operational management of the information resources and plan for the future. To ensure this, there is an urgent need to understand and grasp the complex process of 'identifying information needs', which is a very vital link in the chain of operations from information gathering to dissemination. Further, one might spend a lot of time, effort and money mining the various information sources and gather a great deal of sound information that does not answer the key questions of the users' decision making/ action taking process. Hence before initiating, building and developing any information center/ system, the relevance of information to be gathered must be checked thoroughly, which in turn depends entirely on the 'identification of information needs'.

Moreover, the effectiveness of an information system depends on the extent to which the system's characteristics are in correspondence with the situation of the user and on how much the potential user of the system is willing and able to make use of the services provided by the information system (1). A careful identification, analysis and classification of the 'real' information needs of users (including all potential users and non users as well) is an essential basis for the planning, implementation and operation of information systems. In fact, any lapse in proper identification of information needs will affect the efficiency and effectiveness of information systems and services.

0.1 Information Needs

In day to day work, lack of self sufficiency constitutes information needs. These information needs represent gaps in the current knowledge of the user. Apart from the expressed or articulated needs, there are unexpressed needs which the user is aware of but does not like to express. The third category of need is the delitescent or dormant need which the user is unaware of. But the information services provider may be able to bring to light these needs (2). A need is specific and generally time bound either immediate or deferred. The information provided for a need will be used. In the case of interest, the information provided may be used or may not be used. According to Crawford (2), information needs depend on:

Information needs are affected by a variety of factors such as:

Information needs identification is a complex process. Some of the factors adding to the complexity are:

Apart from the complexities mentioned above, there are problems due to individual behaviour too:

0.2 Scope of the Paper

There have been several studies of users, information needs, information seeking behaviour and information use (2, 5 14), and the number of publications in this area is estimated to be more than 2000 (15) with several review articles (3,4, 15 18). However it has proved to be a difficult area of knowledge though several methods have been proposed.

In order to identify information needs to have some insight into the actual information needs one should adopt various methods to gather information on the various factors that influence the information needs. No single method or tool will serve entirely. A careful selection and blending of several techniques depending on the user whose need is being studied is necessary (19). A formal procedure which can be adopted to the study of the information needs of a majority of users is proposed in the following sections. Besides gathering and recording the information needs, careful analysis is to be made to distil actual needs from the data gathered. To derive the advantages of a combination of 'a priori' and 'pragmatic' approaches, the methodology proposed in the paper involves the conceptual and empirical survey of user information needs. The major steps in the process of identifying information needs is shown in Exhibit 1:

  1. Study of subject(s) of interest to the organisation/ User(s
  2. Study of the organisation and its environment
  3. Study of the immediate environment of the User(s)
  4. Study of the User(s)
  5. Formal interview
  6. Identification and recording of information needs
  7. Analysis and refinement of the identified information needs.

    EXHIBIT 1: Steps in the process of Identifying Information Needs


A very peculiar situation is faced perhaps only by the library and information professionals. They cannot prescribe the needed information to their clientele in the way the other professionals like physicians, lawyers, architects and engineers prescribe, where such prescriptions have a final say and authority, and which are gladly accepted by the clients. The prescription is authoritative mainly because the clients of physicians and other professionals are seeking advice in a field which they themselves are ignorant of, whereas the clients of information professionals are mostly specialists in the areas they seek information and professional advice. This is also the reason for the difficulties experienced by the information professionals in distinguishing the wishes/ desires from the actual needs of the users (20). Hence the information professional has to prepare himself/ herself in such a way as to create confidence in the users about his/ her professional capabilities. Also, if the investigation of information needs is to be successful, it is important to bear in mind that the person chosen to be the Information Needs Identifier (INI) will need to be acceptable at all levels of users (and the management) and have credibility. Some guidelines in the form of a step by step procedure to identify information needs is presented incorporating the steps to be taken by the INI to equip himself/ herself for this investigative/ detective work.


The Information Needs Identifier (INI) must study the subjects (disciplines and sub disciplines) of interest to the organisation/ system/ users, and identify the core, peripheral and supporting areas. The methodology of studying a subject for information work and service has been described by Bhattacharyya (21). The result of such a study would produce a 'handbook' on the subject to guide further work of identifying the information needs. This handbook is not a technical manual for technical personnel but a handy tool for the information professional. Such a handbook would present a bird's eye view of the subject giving the following :

Definitions of the subject concerned, collected from different authoritative sources bringing out the similarities and differences; scope of the subject giving definitions and scope of divisions and subdivisions; scope of the subjects that are 'tool subjects' applicable to the subject concerned for its development; and scope of the subject in terms of the areas/subjects where the subject concerned is applied for their development.

The different types of classification of the subject concerned including special subject classifications, taxonomic classifications, general document classifications, and vocabulary control tools such as thesaurus.

The historical development of the subject giving the landmarks (significant contributions) under the broad divisions and subdivisions; the trend of research in the subject concerned as revealed in review documents marking out the broad areas in which current researches are in progress; and the trend of education and training in the subject concerned.

The important sources of information such as documentary sources (primary periodicals, abstracting and indexing periodicals, handbooks, directories, review documents, data bases etc.), institutional sources and human sources (specialists); and the information transfer process among the users of information on the subject.

After carrying out such a study of subject the Information Needs Identifier becomes confident enough to continue the work of identifying the information needs as s/he is exposed to the technical terminology and structure of the subject.


The second step is to study the organisation and its environment and prepare a profile of the organisation. At this point, it is helpful for the INI to know the type of the organisation (where the users are working) for example, whether it is a corporate office, business or industrial enterprise and also differentiate whether it is public sector or private sector government or non government organisation, profit making or not for profit organisation, so as to identify the different types and styles of management and decision making processes which have a bearing on the information needs. For this purpose, the INI has to study the overall objectives, functions and the factors that affect the functions of the organisation concerned. For this the organisational chart, the functions/ activities chart, annual reports, project reports, internal reports and other publications of the organisation would have to be studied. It would be beneficial for the INI to attend special training courses/ orientation programmes usually organised for the benefit of new employees/ entrants/ management trainees by the organisation. These training courses are usually in the form of a series of lectures by senior personnel in the organisation spread over a period of three to six months. It would cover all subjects relating to the work of the organisation the basic scientific and technical background and detailed aspects of the engineering and technology of production. Further the participants would be taken to the different divisions of the organisation for observation and practical knowledge of the different items of work.

Further, the environment in which the organisation works and its impact would have to be analysed. INI may have to study the super ordinate organisation, its objectives, functions etc., forming the environment and the factors that may affect the particular organisation concerned. If it is a national organisation, then the country's political, social, economical and technological environment having a bearing on the organisation as well as government regulatory environment would have to be taken note of. There is a plethora of regulatory measures by which the government may intervene and over rule market forces etc. Regulatory conditions influencing the operations of an enterprise include the following (22 24):

Some of the sources for this study would be the economic and agricultural survey reports, government notifications giving regulatory information etc. Only after carrying out these studies, the INI becomes sensitive enough to identify the information needs and understand the user's environment and be able to sense the appropriate information needs and distinguish the implications of the needs.


The next step is to study the specific/ immediate environment of the user. At this point, it may be necessary to delineate the category of users (say, supervisor and above) whose information needs are to be identified. The INI must get himself well acquainted with the department/ unit of the individual user before conducting any actual interview with the user for the identification of his/her information needs. Some of the aspects to be covered in this study are:

Some of the sources that are to be studied for this purpose include the monthly/ quarterly/ annual reports by and on the department/ unit and its functions, minutes of meetings on and by the department/ unit, progress reports, project reports, all investigation/ review reports, performance reports, correspondence, proposals by and on the department, records of equipment, machinery and other facilities etc. It may be necessary for the INI to spend sufficient time in the user's department to understand and acquaint himself with the working of the department, its organisational set up, the various activities etc., and thereby understand the situation in which the user is operating. This understanding will help the INI to easily correlate the user's information needs in relation to his environment/ situation and enable the INI to grasp what the user is intending to communicate during any future interview with the user.


Users often tend to classify their wants/ interests into fragmented shopping lists, whereas their true needs may only be identified from a greater understanding of the user as a person (25). Hence emphasis should be placed on the basic needs of the individual as person rather than merely on the 'enquiry'. As such, it is essential that INI should attempt to perceive the users' problems as holistically as possible. If this is acceptable, then the expression of the information need (of the user) ceases to be scientifically impersonal objective entity and becomes an expression which cannot be fully communicated apart from the user.

Therefore, the next step, after the study of the users' environment, is to study each of the individual users. Users are individuals. Nevertheless, in designing information systems, it is useful to classify groups of users. In relation to a specific existing or planned information facility, at least four different types of users can be distinguished (18).

Potential user the one who needs information which might (or might not) be provided by specific services of the information facility. Expected user the one who is known to have the intent of using certain information services (subscriber to a specific information service such as an abstracting service).

Actual User the one who has actually used an information service regardless of whether any advantage was derived from it or not.

Beneficiary the one who derives measurable advantage from information services.

Turning a potential user into an actual user and into a beneficiary should of course be the aim of planners, designers and operators of information systems.

Users may be further categorised into the following broad functional groups (general work roles):

Moreover, in an organisational setting, a user may play different specific work roles in performing his duties and in carrying out his functions and responsibilities. Some of the specific roles managers play, for instance include (26) :

Further, a user while performing specific roles will meet several events relating to activities such as the following:

Some of the communication activities of a manager and the percentage of events for each of the activities (14) are given below:

  1. Receiving information, facts 27.8 %
  2. Receiving request for information, facts 8.0 %
  3. Receiving request for action 5.1 %
  4. Receiving request for approval 1.1 %
  5. Receiving opinion 0.7 %
  6. Receiving request for opinion 0.4 %
  7. Receiving applications for positions 0.4 %
  8. Receiving invitation 0.4 %
  9. Giving information, facts 12.1 %
  10. Giving opinions 0.7 %
  11. Giving instructions 0.7 %
  12. Seeking information, facts 9.2 %
  13. Requesting action 3.3 %
  14. Seeking opinion 0.4 %
  15. Checking and signing documents 6.6 %
  16. Circulating and moving documents 2.6 %
  17. Making notes and writing 1.5 %
  18. Interviewing 1.1 %
  19. Discussing interviewees 0.7 %
  20. Introducing speaker 0.4 %
  21. Participating in decision making 0.4 %
  22. Delaying response 0.4 %
  23. General discussion, meetings 12.8 %
  24. Complex events 1.8 %
  25. Others 1.5 %

Further an individual may form a node in the following three directions of information flow (27) in the organisation:

  1. Communication down the line which is basically of five types :

  2. Communication upward which can be reduced to what people say:

  3. Horizontal communication between colleagues at the same hierarchical level.

Apart from the above, a user, in his professional capacity, is in continuous interaction with:

Users who are in such complex situations may have to be studied using a combination of various direct and indirect methods.

Some of the "direct" methods of user study are:

Some of the "indirect" methods are:

The advantages of direct observation are that the INI comes in direct and personal contact with the user in a dialogue, interview or discussion and that it provides an opportunity for observing the user in his/her "normal" environment. Hence direct observation provides information on the personality and behaviour pattern of the user in different action situations. One limitation of the direct observation is that much depends on the observer's (INI's) own ability and adequacy in carrying out such observational study. Inadequacies may arise in professional attainments, ability to communicate, maturity, tact and knowledge of and skill in carrying out an observational study. It should also be noted that the inferences drawn from the observations may have incidence of subjective element of the observer.

The analysis and inferences from indirect studies are based on the work done by the user which is based on serious thought on his/her part and is not merely some kind of off hand ad hoc statements. Hence the records of user's work can provide a more reliable indication of his/her subject interests, level of understanding, orientation, up to dateness in the subject and ability to express ideas in writing for communicating to peers. Such studies also provide adequate time for analysis. But the data collected is about a situation at a particular time and in a particular context which is to be extrapolated to a dynamic changing situation. A user is a living, developing being, working in a system which itself is subjected to constant change. A few methods of study of users are discussed below.

5.1 Preliminary Survey of Users

It is helpful to carryout a survey of users to begin with. The major attributes of the user which the INI would want to learn about in the survey may be grouped as follows (5):

  1. Subject interest

  2. Academic background and orientation

  3. Psychological attributes, particularly

  4. Ability to express ideas precisely

  5. Attitude to using and acquiring ability to use the tools and techniques of information services

Specifically the INI would need information about the user relating to the following :

Some of the information about the user may be obtained by a study of his/ her Resume/ bio data. The INI should also carryout a survey using questionnaire for collecting such preliminary information about the users. In fact, the INI should (be able to) fill up the questionnaire himself after following the steps of studying the subject, the organisation, the specific unit/ department and the bio data of the user. This would show some gaps in the bio data and would help concentrate on information not available from it. A disadvantage with the questionnaire method is the low return rate. According to Blaise Cronin "The ubiquitous questionnaire is I am forced to concede, an irritant and a pollutant cluttering up the in trays of the world's scientific establishment" (2, p 43). Further, it must be borne in mind that:

However the information collected through the questionnaire and study of the bio data of the users, integrated with the results of the study of the user's specific environment user's department/ unit would form a basic source to carry out further investigations and help identification of information needs.

5.2 Study of Work Diary Maintained by the User

Some users maintain a diary about their work for their own use. It may record the

In some organisations such a diary or record is required to be maintained by each member of staff above a certain level as a part of the project routine, generally in a prescribed form. Users to be studied should be asked to maintain a diary of all important (critical) events/ incidents, cases of problems faced, method of solution, the specific information sources/ services/ channels/ media used and their usefulness etc. In addition, they may be asked to record each and every event/ activity in the order of occurrence. Such a diary record, properly designed and carefully maintained can provide useful information on the specific topics of interest to the user; the methods and techniques s/he has used or planned to use in his work; the kinds of documents, information sources and services s/he uses extensively; the extent of time he normally spends in reading books, articles, reports etc., in discussion with colleagues, experts; and the kind of personal information services s/he prefers. It may also give some information on the persons in the organisation and outside it, with whom he usually associates himself or corresponds with.

5.3 Survey of Information Sources/ Services Used

The next step is to make a study of the different sources of information/ information services being used by the users. This study is to bring out the relevance of different types of sources/ services, the frequency of use, the availability/ accessibility of the sources/ services; preferences/ priority assigned to the different types of sources and services, and the relevance of record keeping in the users' departments/ units. A model questionnaire designed for studying the use of information sources by design engineers and to identify their information needs can be found in (11). This has to be suitably modified depending on the category of users surveyed. It would be better to carry out this study in person with examples of relevant documents of different kinds mentioned in the questionnaire.


The next step is to have a formal interview with the user. After the stages mentioned above, the INI may be in a position to draw up the relevant questions to be asked, the clarification to be sought and such other points for discussion with each individual user. This would of course depend upon, among other things, the category of the user, his environment and the specific roles he plays in carrying out his responsibilities. The questions would be mostly related to the specific work roles the user plays. For example: Q: To play 'this role' say "Marketing Manager" what will you do? A: Evaluate competitors market share. Q: How? A: Get sales figures of competitors, total sales figures in the country/ region, our own organisation/ industry's sales figures, how much percentage of the market is with our industry etc. (In short, EXTERNAL information sales figures for the country/ region and competitors' information, i.e., market intelligence; and INTERNAL information about sales).

The questions drawn up would be helpful in such an interview but one need not be rigidly tied down to it. Before having a formal interview with the user, the INI, as a result of all the stages mentioned above (sections 2 5), should prepare for each user a document giving :

This estimate of draft information needs is the basic document for subsequent confirmation and modification by interviewing to confirm actual needs and to eliminate pseudo needs. Some of the data gathered will require clarification from the user. Some of the information needs identified may turn out to be temporary interests. The report of the 'study of subject' mentioned in section 2, the profile of the organisation/ department/ unit mentioned in section 3 and 4, a well prepared classification scheme for the subject, a vocabulary control tool such as a thesaurus for the subject, and representative samples of relevant information service products/ publications, are to be taken along for the interview, so that the user can peruse them.

A sample matrix showing the information needs of different category of users in Textile Industry is shown in (28). But it should be noted here that merely identifying the subject interests will not reflect the true information needs of individual users owing to the fact that different users have different views/ value systems for the same subject/ information.

Homer (7) has pointed out that the intended use of information has a greater bearing on the actual information required than the user's discipline. Hence, the INI should find out by appropriate questioning :

For each specific information need

that would be most appropriate, has to be ascertained from the user. The INI should show the appropriate information service product to the user to make him express his need.

The INI should cross check to assess whether a need is a true need or a pseudo need. It has been found from experience that there is a tendency especially among the executives either to exaggerate their information requirements or to overlook some of them as unimportant due to certain reasons perhaps personal reasons. In the former case, there is the danger of the user being inundated with too much information and in the latter case, he may not get some useful and pertinent information. But the user should be made to make specific, the value of the need in relation to his specific function /task (of course, the value of the need is directly proportional to the level of the function/ task and the level of the category of the user). This would help to assess whether a need is a true need or a pseudo need. Interviewing the super ordinate and the sub ordinates may help to clarify these.

The value attached to a need is an indicator of the priority that can be assigned to a need. In other words, in the interview, the INI by suitable questioning of the user should delineate which needs are of high priority, which are actual, which are potential, which are distantly related, which may be dropped from and which are to be added to the forecasted needs. The value of the information need can be correlated to the value/ cost of the consequences of the use of the information supplied to satisfy the need. Priorities of information needs depend on the changes taking place from time to time in the user's :

Items (a) to (d) can be kept track of by a perusal of internal circulars, memos and through informal meetings. Item (f) is significant changes in regulations (announced through circulars, government notifications, budget announcements, Chambers of Commerce circulars, newsletters of financial institutions such as Reserve Bank etc.) may not only change the priority, but may change potential needs to actual needs or drop existing needs or bring new needs which were hitherto unknown.

To sense the changes and modifications in the information needs, their priorities and in anticipating new potential information needs; and already identified information needs converting into demands, it is necessary to attend committee/ task force/ project/ technical and other problem solving/ decision making meetings (in which problems and projects are discussed) of which the user is a member. It may also be necessary to attend committee meetings in areas which fall within the purview of the functions and responsibilities of the user.

Feed back from information services rendered and suggestions from users about their changing interests, of the departments and of the organisation as a whole would be of help. Periodic invited group discussions of users (see section 7) would throw much light on the changes taking place and likely to take place in future in the organisation.

It is to be noted that in order to have free exchange of ideas, it is better to have an appointment with users when they are free from important work. During the time of the interview, INI should transact with the users tactfully :


It is a good practice to invite periodically small groups, not more than 15 persons of homogenous composition all design engineers, or all technicians / operators on a particular variety of machinery, or those doing different aspects of a particular task for discussion with INI and other information service personnel about the information services provided, and the information needs, including changes in the information needs of the group. Members should be encouraged to mention in some detail about the present work they are engaged in, the problems they face, the information required and the information service likely to be of interest and help in their work, including comments on how the existing information services should be tuned/ refined to suit their particular information needs. If the discussion is conducted on proper lines such a user's group meeting can combine some of the advantages of survey by questionnaire, interview and informal discussion with the users (5, p77). Moreover, through these discussions the changes that are taking place and that are likely to take place in future, could be ascertained and the organisation's dynamic situation could be monitored. This would help in continuous modification and up dating of information needs and tune the services to suit the changing needs.


The concept of information need is embedded

This area is one of the most amorphous areas of research in library and information science over the past four decades. In actuality, the methodology used for most studies have been found inadequate for uncovering users' real needs which have been difficult to discover, measure and classify (15). Library and Information Science is a practical field. It is hoped that the methodology discussed here, would be easy to perceive and be translatable into practice. Perhaps the methodology would become clearer and clearer as each step in it, is put into practice. Following the methodology would enhance the understanding of the scenario and help in fine tuning the procedure to be followed in particular situations to unearth real information needs. Identifying a need is one thing and satisfying the need is another. The proposed methodology is not only useful in identifying the information needs, but also has a profound impact on finding ways and means to satisfy such needs. Simultaneously the INI would discover, as a bye product, several ideas, tools, methods and techniques of satisfying the users in meeting their information needs. In other words, if you identify the information needs of your clients this way, the documentation and information services that you would be rendering to satisfy these needs, would initiate action and bring about changes in the users, their outlook and in the organisation as a whole.


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