A Hierarchy of Information Needs

I have spent a lot of my professional life observing—and trying to support—communities in their “information sharing,” more commonly known as “communication.” On one side stands the “Organization,” also known as the “content owners,” wanting to pump a steady stream of content to the other side, variously designated the “Users,” “Employees,” “Customers,” etc. I’ll just call them the “Community.” Bridging this Great Information Divide, we have “Technology,” and by “technology,” I mean any of the channels we use to communicate, whether through “grapevines,” telephone calls, in-person visits, snail mail, e-mail, social media or any other means.The Great Communication Divide

Often, I have been charged by the “Organization” to “fix” communication with the “Community,” so that everyone will know what we want them to know, and by extension, to do what they’re supposed to do. (That goal, by the way, merits careful examination…)

It doesn’t matter whether we’re talking about internal communications, marketing campaigns, support sites, or conversing with your kids, humanity is engaged in a continual struggle to reach others with information we consider important, and yet no matter what methods we try, no matter how many channels we use, no matter what the most sophisticated technology we have available, the goal of “getting through” eludes us.

It’s no better from the community’s perspective. We have simple questions (we feel), and there doesn’t seem to be any easy way to answer them. The organization seems to bury the content we want (because we know it must be there somewhere), blocking our way instead with worthless stuff like “Frequently Asked Questions” that don’t include any of our questions. We refer to this as not being “user friendly.”

Though I am not a scientist and have conducted no formal research, I have nevertheless evolved some practical approaches over the years to explain and address the difficulties inherent in how people share information.

My first insight into these difficulties was that there is a Terrible Truth about People and Information: “People will not know a thing until they are ready to know it, and when the terrible moment arrives in which they are ready to know it, they will ask you why you didn’t tell them.”

I want to tell you about another insight, as well. Although Clay Shirky says that “information overload” is bunk, insisting instead that the problem lies in our own poor “filtering” skills, I still think the concept points toward another “terrible truth” about our relationship with information.

Next question, please: Prioritizing the information job queue

At any moment, we human beings maintain a “job queue” of questions and information needs of greater or lesser importance, and we can only satisfy them one at a time. When we set out to find information, if a single question is clamoring for all of our attention, we can absorb no other information—it becomes completely invisible—until we have answered that single, burning question. If on the other hand, we aren’t actively seeking information, whenever we come across some information, we pay it more or less attention depending on where we place the need for that information in the job queue. If we are aware of no need of or interest in that content, it likewise becomes completely invisible.

How we establish our information priorities is complex, but I have observed that different “classes” of information seem to arrange themselves into an order, a pyramid much like Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs” (1943), that underlies and partitions our priorities. Information that deals with our basic human needs and fears, for example, tends to be of higher priority than more complex content that addresses higher-order questions. Further, certain information classes are more readily bumped to the front of the queue, as it were, and when the need for that information is immediate and powerful, it can eclipse the other classes completely.

A Hierarchy of Information Needs


Ephemera: The plankton of the information food chain.

Ephemera are information bits, whose useful life is brief, but which surround us like a fog. They include event times and places, alerts and reminders, breaking news, and upcoming deadlines. When their moment has passed, they become worthless, but while we need them, we can be absolutely single-minded in our search.

Reference: I just need to look something up. Hang on…

Next in the hierarchy (and probably a very close second place) come the “references.” These include all the standard listings, calendars, directories, maps, and any other information displays that people want to consult as quickly as possible.

Ironically, people’s need for references to the ephemera of life must be satisfied before they can pay attention to anything else. Look at your web traffic and search results, and you will invariably see that people are looking for something like today’s lunch menu, the weather forecast, the current job openings, or bus schedules. Information consumers need more of the ephemera, more often, than any other content class, and they often find them through references.

Procedure: How do you work this thing??

Procedural information provides instructions and explanations of ordinary, essential processes. While procedures are the stuff of help files, demonstration videos, product manuals, and other collateral, they also include shopping carts, job applications, tax forms, and any other system that accomplishes tasks.

When people have all their current facts and searchable references safely within reach, they next need some resource that gives them access to the processes and procedures to accomplish the task at hand. Not only does this class include salient, coherent, and simple explanations of a process, it also includes all the forms and other triggers that help people to set the wheels in motion to reach their goals.

Only now do we reach the “higher” orders of content. Again ironically, content owners often want the community to prize these content types above all others, yet unless the community can satisfy their needs for the three previous classes, they are unlikely to benefit from the next two.

Story: Tell me about it.

Stories are powerful. When well done, they carry more meaning and information than almost any other method of communication. Stories, in this sense, include not only articles or tales, but also infographics, videos, and any presentation of information that will require more than a passing glance to comprehend. Stories also include marketing messages, by the way, as well as customer product reviews, blog posts, and forum discussions.

Organizations, especially those that hope to engage their audiences and build lasting relationships with them, generally want to “jump right to the stories” of their content and ignore the other stuff. The great investment they make, however, in creating powerful, meaningful story content may be completely lost if their audiences aren’t able to satisfy their more primary ephemeral, reference, and procedural information needs. For example, if your customers can’t find the instructions on your site for the doo-dad they just bought from you, they’re not likely to see your offers for add-on doo-dads or services.

Foundation: It’s all in the small print.

Foundation content rises to the pinnacle of the pyramid because it almost never changes, requires the greatest amount of attention to grasp, and is needed by the fewest number of people, and then only rarely. It can include your terms of service or privacy policy, the archives of stories that have been retired and have only historical value, or text published to fulfill legal requirements. (As a side note, sometimes foundational content, like credit card fee schedules and terms, should be transformed into “stories,” so that people will actually understand them. Just sayin’…)

If foundational content is cluttering up the path, if it stands in the way of achieving goals, then our attention and patience grow very short, indeed. Foundation content should be well-organized, well-structured, and easily accessible, but it also needs to be relegated to the “conventional” places, such as in footer navigation or investor sub-sites, so that those who need it will be able to find it.

Resist the temptation to put your priorities ahead of the community’s

Organizations often want to banish information like today’s lunch menu from the home page of their intranet, driven by a concern that “trivial” content cheapens the whole content collection. The most prominent positions should be reserved, they insist, for more “substantive” content. That’s a dangerous long-term strategy.

By acknowledging and embracing the community’s information priorities, you can help them satisfy their needs, accomplish their goals, and lead them to the content you most want them to see. In other words, give them what they need to satisfy their most basic needs, and they will have attention to pay to other things.

Sorting your content into these classes can guide both your content and information architectures. Not only does it help model the types correctly for your system, but it also suggests the navigation and interface that will give your community easy access to the information they need at the moment they need it most.

About: rsgracey

@rsgracey has spent his life moving from one area of interest to another, collecting knowledge, skills, and experience (and TOOLS!) for a wide range of creative and professional fields. If you need someone to help you "think through" any problem of information, communication, and the community, don't hesitate to call him in.


  1. Jess Hutton says:

    Thank you! This is one of those things that you sense or understand as a content strategist, but struggle to explain to others (especially when they’re questioning your information hierarchy for a new project). The diagram works beautifully in that gap.

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