64 Determining Interactions

Creating a strategy for successfully implementing interactions involves an intricate balance between the resources, the organizing system that arranges and manages them, its producers, and its intended users or consumers. The design of interactions is driven by user requirements and their impact on the choices made in the implementation process. It is constrained by resource and technical system properties and by social and legal requirements. Determining the scope and scale of interactions requires a careful analysis of these individual factors, their combination, and the consequences thereof.

Think of an information organization project you were involved in. Can you recall ways in which you were constrained in representing an idea by the organizing system the project was implemented with? In what ways was the project negatively affected by the implementation? In what ways might the constraint have had a positive effect?

It is useful to distinguish decisions that involve choices, where multiple feasible alternatives exist, from decisions that involve constraints, where design choices have been eliminated or rendered infeasible by previous ones. The goal when creating an organizing system is to make design decisions that preserve subsequent choices or that create constraints that impose design decisions that would have been preferred anyway.

User Requirements

Users (human or computational agents) search or navigate resources in organizing systems not just to identify them, but also to obtain and further use the selected resources (e.g., read, cluster, annotate, buy, copy, distribute, adapt, etc.). How resources are used and by whom affects how much of the resource or its description is exposed, across which channels it is offered, and the precision and accuracy of the interaction.

An organizing system should enable interactions that allow users to achieve their goals. The more abstract and intermediated the interaction between a user and an organizing system becomes, the more precisely the requirements must be expressed. User requirements can be stated or implied, depending on the sophistication and functional capabilities of the system.

In a closet, which is a personal organizing system for physical resources, the person searching with an intent to find a particular shirt might think, “Where is my yellow Hawaiian shirt?” but does not need to communicate the search criteria to anyone else in an explicit way. In a business or institutional organizing system, however, the user needs to describe the desired resource and interact with the system to select from candidate resources. This interaction might involve a human intermediary like a salesperson or reference librarian, or a computational one like a search engine.

A user’s information need usually determines the kind and content of resources required. User information needs are most often expressed in search queries (whatever is typed into a search box) or manifest themselves in the selection of one or more of the system categories that are offered for browsing. Queries can be as simple as a few keywords or very complex and specialized, employing different search fields or operators; they may even be expressed in a query language by expert users. Techniques such as spelling correction, query expansion, and suggestion assist users in formulating queries. Techniques like breadcrumb navigation and faceted filtering assist users in browsing an organizing system’s category system. Some systems allow the query to be expressed in natural language and then transform it into a description that is easier for the system to process. Queries for non-textual information like photos or videos are typically expressed as text, but some systems compute descriptions from non-textual queries such as images or audio files. For example, a user can hum a tune or draw or drag an image into an image query box.

Information needs of computational agents are determined by rules and criteria set by the creators of the agents (i.e., the function or goal of the agent). When a computational agent interacts with another computational agent or service by using its API, in the ideal case its output precisely satisfies those information needs.


While search queries are explicitly stated user information needs, organizing systems increasingly attempt to solicit the user’s context or larger work task in order to provide more suitable or precise interactions. Factors such as level of education, physical disabilities, location, time, or deadline pressure often specify and constrain the types of resources needed as well as the types of interactions the user is willing or able to engage in. Implicit information can be collected from user behavior, for example, search or buying history, current user location or language, and social or collaborative behavior (other people with the same context). Methods for explicitly soliciting user requirements include observation, surveys, focus groups, interviews, work task analysis and many more.[1]

Designers of organizing systems must recognize that people are not perfectly capable and rational decision makers. Limited memory and attention capacities prevent people from remembering everything and make them unable to consider more than a few things or choices at once. As a result of these fundamental limitations, people consciously and unconsciously reduce the cognitive effort they make when faced with decisions.

One important way in which this affects how people behave demonstrates what Barry Schwartz calls The Paradox of Choice. You might think that people would prefer many options rather than just a few because that would better enable them to select a resource that best meets their requirements. In fact, because considering more choices requires more mental effort, this can cause stress and indecision and might cause people to give up. For example, when there were 24 different types of jam offered at an upscale market, more people stopped to taste than when only 6 choices were offered, but a greater percentage of people who were presented a smaller number of options actually made a purchase.[3]

We see the same phenomenon when we compare libraries and bookstores. A rational book seeker should prefer the detailed classification system used in libraries over the very coarse BISAC system used in bookstores. However, many people say that the detailed system makes them work too hard, leading to calls that new libraries adopt the bookstore organizing system. (See “The BISAC Classification”)

People can avoid making choices if a system proposes or pre-selects an option for them that becomes a default choice if they do nothing. Often people will make a cursory assessment about how well the option satisfies a requirement and if it is good enough they will not consider any other alternatives.[4]

The study of the limits to human rationality in decision-making is the centerpiece of the discipline known as Behavioral Economics.

Organizing systems should plan for interactions based on non-purposeful user behavior. A user who does not have a particular resource need in mind might interact with an organizing system to see what it contains or to be entertained or educated. Imagine a user going to a museum to avoid the heat outside. Their requirement is to be out of the heat andpossiblyto see interesting things. A visitor to a zoo might go there to view a specific animal, but most of the time, visitors follow a more or less random path among the zoo’s resources. Similarly, web surfing is random, non-information-need-driven behavior. This type of requirement cannot be satisfied by providing search capabilities alone; other interaction types (e.g., browsing, suggestions) must be provided as well.

Lastly, not all users are human beings, typing in search queries or browsing through catalogs. An organizing system should plan for interaction scenarios where computational agents access the system via APIs (application programming interfaces), which require heavily standardized access procedures and resource descriptions in order to enable interactions.

Socio-Political and Organizational Constraints

An important constraint for interaction design choices is the access policies imposed by the producers of organizing systems, as already described in “Access Policies”. If resources or their descriptions are restricted, interactions may not be able to use certain properties and therefore cannot be supported.

Inter-organizational or socio-political constraints are imposed when certain parties in an interaction, or even producers of an organizing system, can exert power over other parties and therefore control the nature of the interaction (or even the nature of the resource descriptions). We can distinguish different types of constraints:


Information and economic power asymmetry

Some organizations are able to impose their requirements for interactions and their resource description formats upon their clients or customers. For example, Google and Apple each have the power to control the extent of interoperability attainable in products, services, or applications that utilize their numerous platforms through mandated APIs and the process by which third-party applications are approved. The asymmetry between these dominant players and the myriad of smaller entities providing peripheral support, services, or components can result in de facto standards that may pose significant burden for small businesses and reduce overall competition.


Industry-wide or community standards can be essential in enabling interoperability between systems, applications, and devices. A standard interface describes the data formats and protocols to which systems should conform.[5] Failure to adhere to standards complicates the merging of resources from different organizing systems. Challenges to standardization include organizational inertia; closed policies, processes, or development groups; intellectual property; credentialing; lack of specifications; competing standards; high implementation costs; lack of conformance metrics; lack of clarity or awareness; and abuse of standards as trade barriers.

Public policy

Beyond businesses and standards-setting organizations, the government sector wields substantial influence over the implementation and success of possible interactions in organizing systems. As institutions with large and inalienable constituents, governments and governmental entities have similar influences as large businesses due to their size and substantial impact over society at large. Different forms of government around the world, ranging from centrally planned autocracy to loosely organized nation-states, can have far-reaching consequences in terms of how resource description policies are designed. Laws and regulations regarding data privacy prevent organizing systems from recording certain user data, therefore prohibiting interactions based on this information.[6]

It is easy to take standards for granted, but without them our lives would run less smoothly because many products and services would not work very well or even be dangerous to use. If you search for the phrase “ISO Standard” along with almost anything, there is a good chance that you will find something. Try “currency,” “food,” “sunglasses,” “tea,” “water,” “wine,” and then a few of your own.

Even within the same firm or organization, constraints on interaction design may result from contradictory policies for organizing systems or even require the implementation of separate, disjoint systems that cannot be integrated without additional investment. Siloed business functions may be resistant to the merging of resources or resource descriptions in order to gain competitive advantage or command resources over other business functions.

Often characterized by different kinds of value contribution, different policies, processes, and practices, organizational units must clearly define and prioritize different interaction goals, align and coordinate processes, and build collaboration capabilities to achieve a high level of interoperability within the organizing system or between different organizing systems in the organization.

In addition to information exchange, organizational interoperability also aims to provide services that are widely available, easily identifiable, and accessible across the enterprise.

Nevertheless, inter-organizational constraints are inherently less deterministic than intra-organizational ones, because it is possible that a decision-maker with broad authority can decide that some interaction is important enough to warrant the change of institutional policies, formats, or even category systems. (See “Institutional Categories”.)

  1. A conceptual framework for analyzing users and their work tasks for design requirements is (Fidel 2012). A general survey of design methods is given in (Hanington and Martin 2012). Designing particularly for successful interactions (services) is discussed in (Polaine, Løvlie and Reason). (Resmini and Rosati 2011) describe designing for engaged users using cross-channel, cross-media information architecture.

  2. (Simon 1982), (Tversky and Kahneman 1974), (Kahneman and Tversky 1979), (Kahneman 2003), and (Thaler 2008).

  3. (Schwartz 2005) and (Iyengar 2000)

  4. A comprehensive review of the power of defaults in software and other technical systems from the perspectives of law, computer science, and behavioral economics is (Kesan and Shah 2006)

  5. (von Riegen 2006).

  6. A good example for the importance of standards and interoperability rules is E-government. E-government refers to the ability to deliver government services through electronic means. These services can range from government-to-citizen, government-to-business, government-to-employees, government-to-government, and vice-versa (Guijarro 2007), (Scholl 2007). This could range from a government unit providing a portal where citizens can apply for a driver’s license or file their taxes, to more complex implementations such as allowing different government agencies to share certain pertinent information with one another, such as providing information on driver’s license holders to the police. Because the government interacts with heterogeneous entities and their various systems, e-government planners must consider how to integrate and interoperate with different systems and data models. Countries belonging to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development(OECD) have continuously refined their strategies for e-government.

    An example of a highly successful implementation of a business-to-government implementation is the use of the Universal Business Language(UBL) by the Government of Denmark. UBL is a “royalty-free library of standard electronic XML business documents such as purchase orders and invoices” [oasis-open.org]. The Government of Denmark localized these standards, and mandated all organizations wanting to do business with the government to use these formats for invoicing. By automating the matching process between an electronic order and an electronic invoice, the government expects total potential savings of about 160 million Euros per year [UBL case study], thus highlighting the need for a standard format by which businesses can send in orders and invoices electronically.

    Recognizing that its position as government entails that all types of suppliers, big or small, must have equal opportunity to sell its products and services, the Government of Denmark not only set data format standards, it also gave several options by which information can be exchanged. Paper-based invoices would be sent to scanning agencies that would scan and create electronic versions to be submitted to the government. This highlights the different organizational and consumption issues that the government of Denmark had to consider when designing the system.


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The Discipline of Organizing: 4th Professional Edition Copyright © 2020 by Robert J. Glushko is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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