Networked information services are increasingly being developed for a range of network users and potential users. The passage of the High Performance Computing Act of 1991 (P.L. 102-194) authorized the development of the National Research and Education Network (NREN). The Clinton Administration's National Information Infrastructure: Agenda for Action (Office of the President, 1993) will promote even greater development of information services over the networks. But the development and implementation of those services have not kept pace with ongoing evaluation of networked services. Increased attention must be given to the evaluation of networked information services. Moreover, the evaluation of these services must be user-based as opposed to system-based. To date, there have been very few formal attempts reported in the literature of user-based assessments of networked information services.
The notion of networked information services is an evolving one. Such services can be offered by individuals, libraries, computer centers, publishers, networks, government agencies, or a host of other organizations and groups with access to the Internet and the evolving NREN. Networked information services comprise bulletin boards; e-mail; listservs; remote access to distant databases, software, and high speed computing; and collaborative efforts among geographically dispersed individuals--to name but a few (LaQuey, 1992). A key aspect of "networked information services" is that there are numerous providers--local and remote; there is a range of electronic information services available to users; and access to and use of these services continues to increase.
Evaluation is the process of identifying and collecting data about specific services or activities, establishing criteria by which their success can be assessed, and determining both the quality of the service or activity and the degree to which the service or activity accomplishes stated goals and objectives (Van House et al., 1990). As such, evaluation is a decision-making tool that is intended primarily to: (1) ensure that the highest quality services are provided to intended users of that service, and (2) assist decision makers in allocating necessary resources to those activities and services that best facilitate the accomplishment of organizational goals and objectives (Hernon McClure, 1990). Unfortunately, many networked information services are designed without user input and, worse, are inadequately (if at all) evaluated by those for whom the service was originally intended.
User-based evaluation and determination of user needs should be considered as part of the strategic planning process for the development of networked information services. Thus, developers of networked information services constantly need to ask:
* Who are the users of the service and how well are they able to identify and access a particular service?
* To what degree do networked information services enhance or detract from users' ability to accomplish specific tasks?
* What information resources and services are "most" important for network clientele and how well does the network deliver these services?
* What are the costs and benefits of specific networked information services and to what degree do these services meet the objectives of both the provider and the user?
* What are the specific strengths and weaknesses of the information services and how do these services affect different user groups?
* Would the provider of the networked information service receive more or better benefits by reallocating resources to new or different information services?
While this list is not intended to be comprehensive, it suggests that user-based evaluation of networked information services should accompany the design and implementation of such services. Overall, we need a better understanding of how well networked information services meet (and anticipate) user information needs.
The purpose of this article is to: (1) provide an overview of the importance of user-based evaluations of networked information services, (2) review a number of data collection techniques that provide a user perspective when assessing networked information services, and (3) offer practical suggestions and guidelines for using such techniques. The data collection techniques discussed in this article have been used by the author in a number of studies related to electronic networking (McClure et al., 1994). A key theme throughout the article is that ongoing evaluation--as part of the strategic planning process--is essential in the design and successful operation of networked information services.
NEED FOR A USER PERSPECTIVE
If the Internet/NREN and other new electronic systems and services are to be successful, they must be integrated into the working lives of users in those communities they are meant to serve. Such integration depends upon identifying and addressing a number of social and behavioral issues related to the use of networks by the various users (McClure et al., 1991). A user perspective should consider the culture of the communities and subcommunities involved; the relationship between community norms and the use of electronic networks; effects of networks on collaboration and scholarly communication; definitions of eligible users and acceptable uses; relationships among users in academia, government, and the private sector; and the training and support of onsite and remote users of networked facilities.
A user-based evaluation perspective considers issues such as: How can the use of electronic networks facilitate the tasks and goals of particular communities of users?
* What problems do particular groups of users face in attempting to exploit networks for the accomplishment of those tasks and goals?
* What design, management, and policy strategies can alleviate those problems and maximize network use and effectiveness?
These and similar questions can be approached by developing and implementing ongoing user-based evaluations of networked information services.
A user perspective assumes that information technologies should not be designed and implemented according to technical criteria alone but should take into account the …