INLS 180
Fall 1999


Sample Scenario Analysis Assignment:

Purchasing a New Car


Gregory B. Newby

School of Information and Library Science


In 1991, on confirming my new job at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, I purchased a Chevy S-10 pickup truck. This truck served my wife and I well, and has over 225,000 miles on the odometer.


Recently, we decided it was time for a new car. Fitting our 5 dogs and 2 cats inside was desirable, but not necessary (we don't really want to drive a car that big), as was being able to drive on poor quality roads like Black Gap road in Big Bend National Park1, and our gravel driveway. Eventually, we decided to purchase either a Subaru Forester or Jeep Cherokee. This is an analysis of the process and outcome.


General Motors, DaimlerChrysler, Ford and other auto makers spend billions of dollars every year trying to convince people to purchase automobiles (about $4.5 billion, according to Advertising Age As numbers 1, 2 and 3 in Fortune Magazine's Global 500, with combined revenues of half a trillion dollars, they can afford it.   But does this mean the local car dealership is effective in meeting the needs of customers We'll see.

Mediated Communication

Phase one of the process was research. We (my wife and I) spent hours looking at guides and ratings, entirely on the Internet. Here, the process is very much contrary to Culnan's findings of chauffered versus end-user access: I was directed, with a long timeline, and increasingly knowledgeable, but without seeking help from any sort of intermediary. With these sorts of needs, Culnan might have predicted I would seek out an intermediary.


One of the key activities we needed to engage in was what Schramm would call “selective exposure.” We spent months (maybe years) thinking and talking about what sort of car we would eventually want to buy, keeping our ears and eyes open for any possible leads. Once we decided to focus on the Subaru or Jeep, we actively tried to avoid any information that might deter us. We did waver (after all, those new Xterra commercials are pretty inspiring).


What would Schamber2, Eisenberg and Nilan say about the relevance of the information we used? Everything online:,, and lots of (we even paid for an online subscription). for opinions (Are the Subaru seats really too hard? How come Consumer Reports doesn't like any SUV that drives like a truck?). There were no trips to the bookstore or the library There were no magazines, and very little TV (yes, Xterra advertises during Comedy Central's “South Park” and reruns of “Saturday Night Live,” but not many other car companies do).


Consider, S-E-N: we viewed thousands of online files from scores of sources. What was relevant? The problem was that the new information content was fairly low – after a few places, we were contributing in a small way to our knowledge, but most of what we were seeing, we already knew. Relevance is contextual, not binary, and cognitively based. But even Dervin would have a hard time tracking the search process, and assessing particular information needs at each phase.

Human Interaction

We visited Performance Auto in Chapel Hill to drive a Forester, and went to the David O'Neill Auto Group in Raleigh to try a Jeep. There is a closer Jeep dealership, Morgan Jeep in Durham, but they didn't have any Web pages. In our efforts to encourage geek culture, we prefer to go to places with Web pages, and do almost all of our non-grocery shopping online.


Neuliep would agree that this is an intentional communication experience. Roloff really comes to bear here, though. What does the average person want when they walk in to a new car dealership? I have no idea. But what we wanted was to (a) drive the car we had identified and read about, and (b) to negotiate for the price, desiring to pay no more than $500. over the dealer's invoice (which we were, of course, able to print from various Web sites).


What we found was that dealerships, or at least some sales people, had their own notions of social exchange. At Performance: No, we can't drive a Blazer (one of our early contenders) today, but let's talk about our shared experiences in the Adirondack Mountains. Here, have a brochure (you mean you already have that information?). Eventually, we sat in a Blazer, and drove the Forester for a little while. Did you know the Subaru guy needs to refer you to a Chevy Truck (not car) guy, that he can't talk with you about a Blazer himself? The Forester is a very nice car, reasonably priced.


The O'Neill guy was really enthusiastic about Jeeps. But guess what: there are no 2000 Jeep Cherokees with manual transmissions. Chrysler isn't making them yet (I called). We needed to try a 1999 Jeep, which are almost all sold. Barrier, per Dervin: we needed to find one. Our friendly O'Neill guy found one, but told us that since it's a one of a kind find, the only one left in 10 states, there was no way he could only sell it for a mere $500. over invoice.


We stopped by Morgan Jeep in Durham. Rick Morgan was our man. He listened – a key skill (according to Warner's interviewing instructions) that we found in short supply at other dealerships. He found us two Jeeps in North Carolina – yes, they were 2-door, not 4-door, but were otherwise very nice. He thought $500. over invoice was fine. Lo and behold! Three days later, we picked up our new Jeep Cherokee Sport 2-door, 4-wheel drive, manual transmission.


The communication skills and analysis of communication roles from INLS 180 readings seemed to fit our experiences very well. There really is a social exchange factor; there really is intentional communication; information seeking can include lots of iteration, and is very complex to explain. The role of relevance is as muddled as ever. On the Internet, it's even hard to decide what a “document” is, and harder still to determine what's relevant.


Cognitive change is something that's come up in a few readings, sometimes with different labels (Dervin, S-E-N, Harter and others talk about it). During the process described here, cognitive change was ongoing. When spending over $20,000 on a car we want to last for at least 200,000 miles, it's important for it to be the right one. But what's right? Well, it turns out that probably any number of cars, models, colors etc. could be combined into the right one. Now that we have taken the plunge and bought it, the cognitive change is to be comfortable with the decision, avoid any information that might cause regret, and pat ourselves on the back for being such shrewd bargainers.



1See for information about this spectacular park. We once drove the S-10 end to end Black Gap road, which is highlighted in, “Some of these roads, like the Black Gap Road, are not maintained and require determination and considerable driving skill in order to successfully traverse them.”


2Linda Schamber is the person who recommended I buy the S-10, and sent me to Dave Ball Chevrolet in Syracuse, NY. The information seeking process for that purchase was very simple: I had an old car with a stuck throttle (it would only go 70MPH, which is inconvenient for city driving), I had a signed offer letter from U. Illinois, and Linda is a big-time truck person.