Making the Best Decisions: Using Context, Inclusion, and Information Foraging

When it comes to decision making, what you exclude can be just as important as what you include. It isn't just that making a decision involves conscious or deliberate evaluation, discrimination, and selection -- it's that decision-making has an unconscious aspect, too: certain alternatives might not occur to you, or you might simply rule out or dismiss options without even considering them simply out of force of habit.

It might sound corny to say it, concedes Donald Farmer, vice president of product management with business intelligence (BI) software vendor QlikTech Inc., but context really does matter. It's all part of what QlikTech calls "business discovery," he explains: when a QlikView user interacts with a data set, the items the user is working with are highlighted in green; items that are "related" to the data set are highlighted in white. (QlikView determines or establishes relationships when it imports data.) So-called "unassociated data" -- data that's specifically excluded by the selection -- is highlighted in grey, he points out.

Granted, none of this information in white or grey must be material to a pending decision. On the other hand, Farmer argues, decisions aren't always one-and-done: the deliberations that are part of the decision-making process might prompt additional questions. At the very least, these questions will require more research; in some cases, they might prompt more decision-making.

This is the rationale behind one of Farmer's favorite ideas: "information foraging," a term that's meant to describe how humans organize and maximize their information-seeking activities.

"My favorite [solution to this problem] is to enable information foraging. The reason that's interesting is that information foraging ... should turn up not just what we think the answers are, but the surrounding miasmas of possible alternatives -- the things that are excluded from your result set," Farmer says. "You want to see not just the data associated with your selection, but the data you have chosen to exclude. That means that a user isn't blinkered [by the unexpected]. They're not just seeing one thing; they're seeing a much bigger picture ... can assess the impact of the choices at a better rate."

A key aspect of information foraging is "information scent:" this describes the hints or cues that human beings follow in tracking down (in foraging for) information.

"This is more than just a 'selection' experience; it really is 'information scent' as it gives visual clues about the data space surrounding your selection while still enabling you to focus on your selection," he argues. "It's a form of 'peripheral vision' for the decision maker."

Independent data scientist Deborah Cooper, a principal with Deborah M. Cooper consulting, doesn't use the term "information foraging," but she's definitely a big fan of bigger context.

"If you shift how you frame [a decision], many new possibilities open up. If you're constrained by only thinking about how it's originally framed, you might miss some opportunities to find better levers that you can use for your business," says Cooper, who has worked for several large financial services firms, including Fidelity Investments.

One problem is the way in which decision-making gets treated in most businesses: context tends to get squeezed out the higher one goes up a decision-making chain. Decision-makers -- particularly those at the executive level -- tend to get abstract distillations (at best) of information: at a certain point, they no longer get "just the facts" but "just the options."

Cooper points to a presentation by former National Security Adviser Samantha Ravitch at last year's Strata + Hadoop World conference in New York. Ravitch, now a senior adviser with The Chertoff Group (the risk-management and security consultancy founded by former Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff), discussed the problem of giving the executive team to which she reported the contextual information it needed to make effective decisions.

The trade-off, according to Ravitch, involved giving her team as little information as was possible -- the vice president of the United States tends to be an especially busy person, after all -- and simultaneously giving it richness of context.

"I think it's critical to try to understand where the executive or the executive team is and help enrich their view [of a decision-making context]," Cooper comments, noting that this is particularly challenging when it comes to decision-making in new or unfamiliar situations.

"People can cling so hard to how they've done things in the past. This is why [added context] is so important. If you can give [decision-makers] enough context, this can encourage them to ask questions. It can encourage executives to challenge assumptions."