The Problem With The Semantic Web: Usability
5 May 2010
Check out Duane Degler’s presentation User Interfaces for the Semantic Web. In skimming it, I came across this quote from semantic web guru Ora Lassila, which comes from his blog post Semantic Web Soul Searching:
After 10+ years of work into various aspects of the Semantic Web and its constituent technologies, I am now fully convinced (read: no longer in denial) that most of the remaining challenges to realize the Semantic Web vision have nothing to do with the underlying technologies involving data, ontologies, reasoning, etc. Instead, it all comes down to user interfaces and usability. Somehow, I repeatedly run into a situation where some use of Semantic Web technologies that would make a nice end-user application is “blocked” by the fact that the user interface is the real challenge.
For a long time (longer than I have worked on the Semantic Web) I have wanted to build systems that work on users’ behalf. Semantic Web is one of the enabling technologies, a means to an end, and not the end itself. Every time I look critically at the current use of (information) technology, I cannot help but wonder how it is possible to actually get away with the approach taken today (where substantial burden is placed on the users).
This is a really powerful quote for anyone involved in UI design with semantic technologies. But for those of us from the user-centered design camp, it’s not really surprising or new. Having someone like Ora Lassila say it is.
In two related presentations I gave in the past couple of years, I make similar claims. In Navigating The Long Tail, I point out that the cost of having more and more metadata is noise. And that’s fundamentally a UI problem. In The Navigation Layer: Making Sense Of It All, I suggest four main challenges of UI design in hyper-information-rich contexts to assist in sense making:
- Representation - How information is displayed affects how it’s found and understood.
- Interaction - The ability to interact and manipulate information is important in sense making, particularly in digital environments.
- Context - The topical and thematic structures applied to metadata define scope and the boundaries between domains and niche markets.
- Time - Showing trends over time can in many situations provide the most meaningful insight.
Yet, most of the attention in discussions around semantic capabilities goes to the technological aspects. Sure, there are many UI projects–many of them academic–but these are few in comparison.
What’s more, beyond UI and usability concerns, I believe the semantic web and semantic technologies in general face another non-technical challenge: business models. We’ve not really figured out what the value is to customers and how to make money–at least not on a broad scale.
My general recommendation for any business looking to leverage semantic technologies is to spend as much time (if not more) figuring out a.) UI issues and how you’re going to bring value to customer and b.) the business model and how you’re going to make money.
The success of next-generation information systems depends much more on human factors than on more sophisticated technologies.