User and User Studies in Knowledge Organization (KO)

"In the past twenty-five years or so, we have seen what some have referred to as a user-centered revolution.1 [Nahl, 1996, 2003]. This revolution is manifest in the policy, theory, methodology and practice of a range of disciplines and fields of study. The terminologies used to describe a focus on the beneficiaries or recipients of services, products, systems or professional actions vary. Engineers design end-user technologies. Businesses, organizations and institutions claim to be client centered, customer oriented or market driven. The education field is learner centered.

    Various stakeholders in the development of the Internet have developed versions of the user centered revolution but overall we can see a shift from technology to people, from product to service, from outcome to process and so on. The common ground is a focus on people—user oriented, people centered, user based, human centered, user responsive and so on. The user focus is an amalgam of methods, approaches and techniques that provide professions and disciplines with ways to define, understand, explain, measure and ultimately serve, the needs of people. "  (Bruce, 2002, p. 29).



"In knowledge organization theory, cognitive perspectives have not been as dominant as in information behavior research. The reason for this is it is practically impossible, at least in the long run, to avoid connecting knowledge organization and classification research to the actual content of the documents and document collections in relation to the classification and indexing performed. This can seem trivial, but it is actually not . . ."  (Hansson, 2006).


Knowledge organizing systems (KOS) and knowledge organizing processes may involve different kinds of data provided by users or about users. For example, Jones et al. (1997) is about transaction logging while Nielsen (2002) is about the word association method (cf. associative relation). A third method is, of course, interviewing. These three methods, among many others, may be used to obtain data to be used in the design and evaluation of KOS. Approaches to KO that is mainly based on data obtained from users belong to the user-based approaches to KO.


User based approaches are not necessarily the same as user friendly approaches. Different approaches may claim that they are user friendly. For example is the facet-analytic approach not based on user studies but may claim that it is user-friendly by providing a clear and logical structure for the user.


User based approaches should be compared with other approaches to knowledge organization. One interpretation talk about "the user-oriented revolution" (Nahl, 1996 & 2003) and date the beginning of this approach to 1970. It is important to consider the strength and weaknesses of the different approaches and to make clear what their respective core assumptions are. It is also important to realize that the approaches may be understood and defined differently by different researchers and teachers.


In research environments are users often experts. A distinction should be made, however, between obtaining data from users considered as users or obtaining data from experts. Experts are supposed to know, for example, the meaning of terms in LSPs, but non-expert users are not supposed to have reliable knowledge about definitions, meanings, and relations on which KOS may be based. (In artificial intelligence research have techniques or methods of knowledge elicitation been developed to extract knowledge from experts. The word association method is also among those techniques). Important concepts are user warrant and literary warrant. The basic aspects of user-oriented methods to KO may be that they focus on user warrants more than on literary warrant.


Different theories and approaches to knowledge organization have different views of users and of the value of user studies. Often such views are not explicit. The facet analytic tradition founded by Ranganathan, for example, does not emphasize users or user studies, nor does bibliometrics (although citing authors are also a kind of users). The view of users in such approaches is something that either is not appropriate or something that must be deduced by theoretical considerations. On the other hand have certain user-oriented and cognitive views also been put forward and discussed in knowledge organization. The Book House System is probably one of the most prominent examples of KOS based on the user oriented view.


User oriented views have been influential in Library and Information Science (LIS) in the last decades. However, more so in information seeking studies than within KO. One of the specific examples on systems designed on the basis of user studies and cognitive studies is “The Bookhouse” made by Annelise Mark Pejtersen’s (cf., Pejtersen (1989a+b, 1992). This system represents in many different ways a pioneering work. However, the theoretical basis for constructing KOS from a user-oriented or cognitive point of view is unclear hand has been criticized (e.g. by Frohmann, 1990). Fidel & Pejtersen (2004) argues for what is termed the “Cognitive Work Analysis framework” and writes that “. . . Secondly, while guidelines about useful methods and research questions can be developed for a particular work domain, these cannot be automatically generalized to another domain”. In this way their view is related to the domain-analytic view. What may still be different is whether the classical principle of “literary warrant” (perhaps implicitly) is replaced with empirical user studies.


When online systems were introduced in the 1960s a common experience was that users prefer verbal search languages. They did not consider classification codes to be "user friendly".


Some uses of the term “user friendliness” are rather trivial. It is of course user-friendly to have easy access to a system, to have it free or at a low cost, to have it without errors and in a high standard. To have knowledge organized and available on the Internet is, of course, often more user friendly than to have it in printed volumes in libraries far away and with closing hours. It is of course also “user friendly” to have possibility of making both full-text searching and searches limited to descriptors and other fields. In general, the electronic medium is simply more flexible and user-friendly compared to the printed medium for most kinds of information retrieval (although a few investigations suggests that paper-based searching might provide different and perhaps better even results (cf., Clarke & Oxman, 2003, 5.1.2.: Hand searching; Hopewell et al., 2002).


Constructing a system of knowledge organizing very often imply the considering of opposite interests. This may be the case in the core classification as well in the way the information is displayed to the user. For example, both psychologists and sociologists would like to have social psychology as a subdiscipline. What is “user friendly” for one group is not so for the other group. People like quick searches without having to consider controlled vocabularies. Classification codes is normally not considered user friendly because they are not immediately understandable and you may need to look them up in a special system. Quick and dirty searches may seem “user friendly”, but this may change if they fail to retrieve important documents that turn out to be crucial.


“User friendliness” might also be connected to “userism” as an ideology. Students might like to have less demands put on them. Users of libraries might to have more popular titles at the expense of titles in foreign languages and difficult mathematics. It is not a given that userism is always a healthy ideology (neither is the opposite). Userism spread especially from the influence of Margaret Thatcher in England in the 1980s. User oriented approaches in KO may imply tendencies towards populism.


User-friendliness may also be connected to standards. It is confusing to use many different kinds of codes, symbols and arrangements. The use of facets in KO may be seen as a standardization that divides different subjects in a standardized way and thus put less demand on the users’ learning and memory.


"Otlet's primary concern was not the document or the text or the author. It was also not the user of the system and his or her needs or purposes. Otlet's concern was for the objective knowledge that was both contained in and hidden by documents." (Rayward, 1994, p. 247).





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Mark Pejtersen, A. (1994). A framework for indexing and representation of information based on work domain analysis: A fiction classification example. IN: Knowledge organization and quality management. Proceedings of third international ISKO conference, Copenhagen, 20.-24. June 1994 (pp. 251-264). Ed. by H. Albrechtsen & S. Ørnager. Frankfurt: Index Verlag.


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Mark Pejtersen, A. & Austin, J. (1984). Fiction retrieval: Experimental design and evaluation of a search system based on users’ value criteria. Part 2. Journal of Documentation, 40(1), 25-35.


Nahl, D. (1996). The User-Centered Revolution: 1970-1995. In Encyclopedia of Microcomputers; Kent, A., (Ed.). New York: Marcel Dekker, Inc.: New York. (Vol. 19, pp. 143-199). (accessed 2005-03-12).

Nahl, D. (2003). The User-Centered Revolution. IN: Encyclopedia of Library and Information Science. Second Edition. Drake, M. (Ed.). New York: Marcel Dekker; Inc. (Pp. 3028-3042).


Nielsen, M. L. (2002). The word association method: a gateway to work-task based retrieval. Åbo: Åbo Akademi University Press (Doctoral dissertation)


Rayward, W. B. (1994). Visions of Xanadu: Paul Otlet (1868-1944) and Hypertext. Journal of the American Society for Information Science, 45(4), 235-250.


Rosenbaum, H.; Davenport, E.; Lievrouw, L. & Day, R. (2003). The death of the user. Panel presentations at ASIST 2003Annual Meeting, Westin Long Beach, California, October 20-23, 2003. 


Shiri, A. A.; Revie, C. & Chowdhury, G. (2002). Thesaurus-assisted term selection and query expansion: A review of user-centered studies. Knowledge Organization, 29(1), 1-19. Available at:


Spinuzzi, C. (2003). Introduction: Tyrants, Heroes, and Victims in Information Design, pp. 1-23. In: Tracing Genres through Organizations. A Sociocultural Approach to Information Design.




See also: Approaches to knowledge organization; Cognitive view in knowledge organization; Indexing theoryRequest oriented indexing; User studies (Core Concepts in LIS).





Birger Hjørland

Last edited: 13-02-2007




  1. Discuss what role, if any, empirical studies of users provide for the classification of a subject field? (Try to think about a subject field you know about and imagine some users).

  2. Discuss the difference between "user friendly" and "user based" approaches.

  3. Discuss whether "market driven" means the same as  "user based".

  4. Some kinds of information systems are based on relevance feedback from users. Discuss whether this can replace classification?

  5. Discuss pro et con market driven approaches.