Nardi and O’Day’s information ecologies model is a systems thinking model that helps service designers analyse complex systems
This post provides an overview of Bonnie Nardi and Vicki O’Day’s (1999) information ecologies model, a systems thinking tool that service designers can use to analyse complex local ecologies. I discuss the model, its components, who influenced its development, and how I integrate the model into my service design practice.
In 2018, I was introduced to Nardi and O’Day’s ‘Information Ecologies: Using Technology with Heart’ theory as a useful framework to think and reflect on research I was conducting as part of RMIT’s Creative Practice PhD program. Some of the content is drawn from material I have drafted for my dissertation that won’t make the final cut, but I recognise its value to other practitioners and curious souls who are interested in system thinking frameworks. I believe Nardi and O’Day’s (1999) information ecologies model is still a valuable tool that can support deeper analysis of the systems we design into. It supports designers to understand the complexity of local systems via a microlens of local people, values, practices and technologies – whilst slicing that perspective with meta-analysis of a system’s inter-related characteristics including its diversity, co-evolution and hidden figures. The model supports designers to create a strategic view of a current state, to understand the human needs of sustainable change, to make better-informed recommendations for longer-term, better-fit outcomes because they consider the humans in the system these services serve.
If you find inspiration from any of the authors mentioned within, please cite them in your work and acknowledge their contribution as foundational to your thinking. As Bernard of Chartres (12th Century) and Sir Isaac Newton (1676) once riffed, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants” (Wikipedia 2022). That wisdom also stretches back further than these two gents, if you’re curious read more about the origins of ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’.
Bonnie Nardi and Vicki O’Day’s ‘Information Ecologies: Using Technology with Heart’ was written in 1999, at a time when anthropologists were moving into the Information Technology (IT) industry in Palo Alto to support the design of new technology products and services, and understand end users behaviours and needs (Wasson 2000). Two studies conducted by Nardi and O’Day at the Apple Computer Library and Hewlett-Packard Library of California focused on digital tools to improve bibliographic searches in library settings (Nardi 1998). Those studies along with a raft of other influences informed their development of the information ecologies model. If you’re interested to learn more about pre-2000 design research Christina Wasson’s (2000) ‘Ethnography in the Field of Design’ traces early projects in the ‘Computer-Supported Cooperative Work’ (CSCW) space, her insight into the Xerox Palo Alto Research Centre’s (PARC) teams approach to research the design of Xerox’s first machine is wonderful (Wasson 2000).
Designing for services is a reflective, iterative, exploratory (Schön 1983) and constructionist approach to co-creating new value with a diverse range of actors including people, systems, and technologies (Kimbell 2011). Understanding the value and the nature of relationships between people, organisations, and other organisations is central to ‘designing for service’ with others (Kimbell 2011 in Stickdorn and Schneider 2011). A ‘servicescape’ is a local environment where services are delivered, and designers conduct contextual research to understand the quality of a customer experience and where the gaps exist before they propose future state solutions (Bittner in Kimbell 2011). The process of co-creating services is human-centred and situated by our understanding of the local environment we design into (Winograd and Flores 1986 in Kimbell 2011). I propose Nardi and O’Day’s information ecologies model is a useful tool for service designers (and those they work with), to develop a much deeper and more human understanding of the systems and contexts they are designing into.
The information ecologies model
The components of the information ecologies model are outlined in Figure 1, the diagram is adapted from a book chapter by Sian O’Gorman (2009) where she applied the model to analyse a creative community of NZ independent record labels (O’Gorman 2009). I’ve presented this interpretation of O’Goman’s model at several RMIT Practice Research Symposiums during the course of my PhD program.
Nardi and O’Day explain an information ecology is;
“composed of people, practices, values and technologies. The characteristics of an information ecology share much with biological ecologies: diversity, locality, systemwide interrelationships, keystone species and co-evolution. What makes information ecologies different is the need to apply human values to the development of the practices and technologies within the ecology. We think of it as using technology with heart” (Nardi and O’Day 1999, pp. 211-212).
Their focus is on human relationships within the system because “in an ecology, we are not cogs in sweeping sociological processes. Instead, we are individuals with real relationships to other individuals” (Nardi and O’Day 1999, p. 50).
Characteristics of an information ecology
There are several lenses to analyse a local information ecology (Nardi and O’Day 1999), they include;
Information ecologies are complex systems with strong interrelationships and co-dependencies, and whilst aspects in the system may differ, they are also tightly bound to each other (Nardi and O’Day 1999). When change impacts one element it is felt right through the environment, which means if an incongruent change is introduced, it can disappear without a trace (Nardi and O’Day 1999). If we are to design longer-term, better-fit solutions it makes sense that we understand the characteristics and human complexities of a systems first.
Healthy systems incorporate diverse people and tools, they find ways to integrate themselves and work together (Nardi and O’Day 1999). Continued systemic health is obtained and maintained by avoiding fake and brittle monocultures, which may thrive in the short term but fail to achieve longevity (Nardi and O’Day 1999). Diverse systems incorporate different people, ideas and technologies, they are resilient and social places that are capable of incorporating ongoing change (Nardi and O’Day 1999).
Heathy ecologies are also constantly in motion, they engaged with, integrate and adapt new ideas into existing ones (Nardi and O’Day 1999). In a healthy ecology where tools are fixed, human expertise and creativity tries to adapt and improve them, to succeed however, Nardi and O’Day recommend social and technological adjustments are also required. Maintaining a culture of cyclical change enables the co-evolution of new system elements or characteristics – where the system characteristically continues to chase improvement, but where it is also never quite fully achieved (Nardi and O’Day 1999). That fluid and dynamic motion of constant change is balanced by restorative measures that move and adapt within the system and human relationships (Nardi and O’Day 1999).
Keystone species are crucial to the survival of any local system, they are skilled people who support the use and application of technology in local environments. Keystone species are the “translators, facilitators, teachers” and mediators who build bridges across boundaries and disciplines, they often make contributions in unofficial roles and go unrecognised for their work (Nardi and O’Day 1999, p. 53-54). Nardi and O’Day recommend looking for and engaging these figures in research to understand their roles, informal contributions and understand how things get done in the system (Nardi and O’Day 1999).
Local networks construct the identity and meaning of technology, they inform how technology is used and integrated into local worlds (Nardi and O’Day 1999). Nardi and O’Day argue that local knowledge is specialised and inaccessible to outsiders, who also lack the influence to effect change (Nardi and O’Day 1999). So including local participants in research supports designers to ensure new tools meet local needs. Design researchers who evoke active, intelligent and engaged participation are also better placed to influence the adoption of sustainable change (Nardi and O’Day 1999).
Who influenced Nardi and O’Day?
The following section summarises thinkers who influenced Nardi and O’Day. Including scholars who encouraged the need to critically reflect on the social impact of change, thinkers who influenced the appropriation of ‘biological ecologies’ and ‘keystone species’ terms. It also considers those who shaped Nardi and O’Day’s advice to look into the invisible spaces for deeper insight into inter-connected relationships between people, local influence, social meaning, values and change.
Personal influence in local settings
Nardi and O’Day derived their ideas of personal influence in local settings by combining Shakespearean notions of ‘local habitation’ with ideas of biological ecologies. They observed individuals are more successful at affecting change in a local setting such their homes, schools or offices – because they possess local knowledge, are engaged and create impact via their personal influence (Nardi 1998; Nardi and O’Day 1999).
Critical reflection on the impact of technology on social systems and values
Nardi and O’Day encouraged researchers to critically reflect on the impact of change on local social meaning by engaging in slower, more difficult and reflective “know-how and know-why” conversations. Asking questions that dig below the surface of local contexts enables insight to how change might impact local values, traditions and rituals (Nardi and O’Day 1999, p. x). At the time sociologist, Jacque Ellul and thinkers such as Langdon Winner, Ivan Illich and Neil Postman were concerned about technology’s capacity to wipe out whole culture and traditions and replace them with “narrowly scoped, obsessive concern for efficiency” (Nardi 1998). These thinkers rationalised the rapid pace of change limited critical thought about the impact on “aesthetic, moral, and spiritual values” (Nardi 1998).
Biological ecologies and keystone species
Nardi and O’Day appropriated the terms “biological ecology” and “keystone species” from E.O. Wilson (Nardi 1998). Nardi explained, “some species are more critical to the functioning of the ecology than others, because of the special roles they play” (Nardi 1998). E.O. Wilson inspired Nardi and O’Day to understand the devastating impact of eradicating keystone species from local environments, and the potential it had to wipe out entire systems;
“Field studies show that as biodiversity is reduced, so is the quality of services provided by the ecosystems. Records of stressed ecosystems also demonstrate that the descent can be unpredictably abrupt. As extinction spreads, some of the lost forms prove to be keystone species, whose disappearance brings down other species and triggers a ripple effect through the demographies of the survivors. The loss of a keystone species is like a drill accidentally striking a powerline. It causes lights to go out all over” (E.O. Wilson 1992 in Nardi 1998).
Understanding the invisible
Nardi and O’Day were interested in the invisible spaces of a system where blind spots can form. They advised invisible figures such as keystone species and gardeners who make informal and unrecognised contributions are useful to understanding how a systems functions (Nardi and O’Day 1999). Studies conducted by the authors at the Apple Computer Library and Hewlett-Packard Library of California concluded the librarians themselves were keystone species because they offered hidden value by creating convivial settings. By paying special attention to local settings and asking questions that applied local values, librarians created “places where clients felt comfortable and cared for at the same time they were receiving the benefits of the most advanced information technologies” (Nardi 1998).
Asking know-how, know-why questions
At a 1998 conference, Nardi reflected on the influence of Fran Peavey’s (1994) ‘By Life’s Grace: Musings on the Essence of Social Change’, on their understanding of the importance of asking “know-how” and “know-why” questions. Peavey shaped their belief about the importance of asking deeper questions to understand personal “values, ideals, dreams and feelings” and how they were connected to personal influence, social values and local meaning (Fran Peavey 1994 in Nardi 1998).
Claiming the middle ground to see the bigger picture
Nardi and O’Day also encouraged researchers to ‘claim a middle ground’ when analysing the impact of change on local social meaning, values and practices (Nardi and O’Day 1999, p. 20-21). They encouraged forming a critical view of the bigger picture to understand how a system’s characteristics, meaning and functions related (Nardi and O’Day 1999).
Matter as a metaphor
Nardi and O’Day also encouraged researchers to expand their thinking beyond the “human-machine dyad” to consider the networks of human “relationships, values and motivations” that sat beneath the system (Nardi and O’Day 1999, p. 30). The authors framed technology as an object used by people imbued with social meaning, to which rules are attached by the cultures that created and used them (Nardi and O’Day 1999). These objects have the capacity to stand in for people when they aren’t physically present, which leads to a potential for social issues to arise. If only the needs of the dominant species only are considered, meanings won’t be contextualised to hidden human realms of the system (Nardi and O’Day 1999).
How to shift a local ecology
Nardi and O’Day recommended several ways to evolve a local information ecology including; working from local values, paying attention to meanings assigned to technology, asking strategic open-ended questions and looking for keystone and gardener species (Nardi and O’Day 1999).
Working from local values
Engaging with a local system to learn and work from its values is an effective way to design sustainable change. Nardi and O’Day advocate researchers participate in local systems, to identify footholds for intervention and obtain closer views of local knowledge. By looking on the ground and at the small, design researchers can find inspiration or footholds to intervene and shift a local system (Nardi and O’Day 1999). Engaged participation helps researchers develop longer-term views of local needs. Whilst the application of external values onto a local system is ineffective and reflects a desire to control something that is not understood (Nardi and O’Day 1999).
Pay attention to local meaning and values
Nardi and O’Day don’t see values as immutable or clearly defined, they believe local values shift, are challenged and renegotiated by people within the system, and when new technologies are introduced (Nardi and O’Day 1999). The process of renegotiating values is crucial to designing new technology, because it is only those within the system who can know, enact and adapt local values (Nardi and O’Day 1999). By understanding the complexity of local people, values, practices and technologies researchers make better choices about how to create sustainable change (Nardi and O’Day 1999).
Strategic open-ended questions
Nardi and O’Day also advise researchers to ask open-ended strategic questions that may lead to taboo topics, they rationalise it is better to ask and address these whilst there is still time to change course (Nardi and O’Day 1999). Gathering a range of questions from local members who have deeper insight into local systems helps inform the right questions to ask, because system knowledge is distributed amongst the local collective (Nardi and O’Day 1999).
Keystone species and gardeners
Looking for the invisible, hidden spaces of a local system helps design researchers understand how things get done (Nardi and O’Day 1999). Less obvious places contain hidden social practices that are essential for maintaining diversity and encouraging the adoption of change (Nardi and O’Day 1999). As mentioned keystone and gardener species help make hidden knowledge and interdependences visible (Nardi and O’Day 1999). The name keystone species is derived from the wedge-shaped stone that sits atop an architectural arch. This stone keeps the entire structure together, but without it, the arch would collapse (Nardi and O’Day 1999). Keystone species play a role akin to the keystone’s function – in that they are difficult to see and their work is done in the background. Researchers will need to look carefully for these figures to understand their contribution, and the authors caution it requires extensive fieldwork to reveal and understand them (Nardi and O’Day 1999).
Gardeners are another species that are helpful to understand local ecologies. They are characterised by their accountable, reliable, long-term presence; and their unique and transferrable skills that work across domains (Nardi and O’Day 1999). Gardeners translate, facilitate and bridge worlds, they share knowledge to enrich many groups and practices (Nardi and O’Day 1999). Gardeners find ways into systems via informal works and convert their contribution into formal responsibilities, often positioning themselves between management and worker figures, and are trusted by both groups (Nardi and O’Day 1999). They are valuable for their range of knowledge, their ability to anticipate concerns and to find proactive workarounds. Gardeners are capable of seeing the benefits or disadvantages of proposed change because they are familiar with the everyday. They are domain experts but often tinker with tools and technology, they have good social skills and a willingness to help (Nardi and O’Day 1999). Nardi and O’Day suggest researchers seek Gardeners out and cultivate them as go-betweens in the local system because they improve productivity and contribute to convivial working environments (Nardi and O’Day 1999).
How have academic practitioners applied the model?
Nardi and O’Day’s model continues to influence contemporary research across a range of disciplines and practices. In the IT sector, their model has aided the analysis of organisational systems to improve efficiency and reduce cost (Hasenyager 1996). Their model has supported researchers to conceptualise invisible “information space as an ecosystem” (Davenport and Prusak 1997) and analyse infrastructure and information domains (Star and Ruhleder 1996). Some argue Nardi and O’Day’s information ecologies model has created a “new species of IT artifact” within digital infrastructures (Tilson et al. 2010). Whilst other recognise the capacity of the model to analyse complex organisational relationships and the objects within IT settings (Miyazaki et al 2012; Wang et al 2015). The definition of an information ecology has been extended by some to analyse systems that sit between human and natural environments (Eddy et al 2014); and been employed to redesign welfare services and systems (Wang et al. 2015; Melkas 2010, Nazi 2013; Teodoro 2016). Pekkarinen et al. (2020) applied the model to realise the impact of human strategy, politics, behaviour, staff and processes on a care organisation’s architectural design (Pekkarinen et al. 2020). The model contributed deeper human insight about the systems the researchers studied and knowledge of underlying psychological, physical and social components. The impact of the model has inspired some scholars to call for a standalone field of study to be dedicated to understanding information ecologies because the theory contributes to more sustainable and harmonious designs of systems that contain humans, information communication technologies and social environments (Wang et al. 2015).
How I apply the model to my service design practice
Nardi and O’Day’s information ecologies model has served to deepen my thinking and critical reflection, and rationalised instinctive moves that I’ve made to enter, analyse, reflect and design within complex systems. The model sharpens my view of local systems and offers a structured format to analyse and sensemake the complexity within, including the invisible elements. I value the information ecologies model for its power to surface the interconnectedness of humanity, culture and social values which always lie beneath the surface of any service we design. I also value Nardi and O’Day’s advice to slow down and spend time to understand the characteristics of the environment you design into before proposing future change. Deeper analysis enables robust and informed decision making, and supports designers to recommend how, where and why to invest limited resource for best outcomes. I acknowledge change-making is an imperfect practice and more complex than when the model was first developed, but surely the challenge for any designer is to create a robust view of a system before proposing change to ensure it is sustainable and sticks. This model can be adapted to create meta and micro views of a local system. My dissertation will tell the story of how I adapted it to unravel a complex heritage system, but more on that later…
Hasenyager, B.W. 1996, ‘Managing the Information Ecology: A Collaborative Approach to Information Technology Management’, Quorum Books, Westport, CT.
Kimbell, L 2011, ‘Designing for service as one way of designing services’, International Journal of Design, vol.5, no.2, pp.41-52.
Melkas, H 2010, ‘Informational ecology and care workers: safety alarm systems in Finnish elderly care organizations’, Work: A Journal of Prevention, Assessment and Rehabilitation, vol.37, no.1, pp. 87-97.
Miyazaki, S, Idota, H & Miyoshi, H 2012, ‘Corporate productivity and the stages of ICT Development’, Information Technology Management, vol.13, no.1, pp. 17-26.
Nardi, B.A. Fall 1998, ‘Information Ecologies’, Reference & User Services Quarterly, vol. 38, no. 1, p. 49.
Nardi, B and O’Day, V, 1999, ‘Information Ecologies: using technology with heart’, MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, US.
Nazi, K.M. 2013, ‘The personal health record paradox: health care professionals’ perspectives and the information ecology of personal health record systems in organizational and clinical settings’, Journal of Medical Internet Research, vol.15, no.4, p. e70.
O’Gorman, S 2010, ‘Creative Ecologies: Flying Nun Records 1981–1997; Xpressway 1988–1993’, Alternative Practices in Design: The Collective-Past, present and Future: Symposium Proceedings, pp. 129-150.
Pekkarinen, S, Hasu, M, Melkas, H & Saari, E 2020, ‘Information ecology in digitalising welfare services: a multi-level analysis’, Information Technology & People.
Schön, D 1983, ‘The reflective practitioner: How professionals think in action’, New York, Basic Books.
Star, L.S. & Ruhleder, K 1996, ‘Steps toward an ecology of infrastructure: design and access for large information spaces’, Information Systems Research, vol. 7, no. 1, pp. 111-134.
Stickdorn, M and Schneider, J 2011, ‘This is service design thinking’, 1st edn., Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, Brooklyn, New Jersey.
Stickdorn, M, Hormess, M.E, Lawrence, A and Schneider, J 2018, ‘This is service design doing: applying service design thinking in the real world’, O’Reilly Media, Inc.
Teodoro, R.R. 2016, ‘Beyond exposure: patient engagement with health information in an information ecology framework’, A doctoral dissertation, Rutgers University-Graduate School, NB.
Tilson, D, Lyytinen, K & Sørensen, C 2010, ‘Research Commentary—digital infrastructures: the missing IS research agenda’, Information Systems Research, vol. 21, no. 4, pp. 748-759.
Wang, X, Guo, Y, Yang, M, Chen, Y & Zhang, W 2015, ‘Information ecology research: past, present and future’, Information Technology and Management, vol.18, pp. 27-39.
Wasson, C 2000, ‘Ethnography in the Field of Design’, Human Organization, vol. 59, no. 4, pp. 377-388.