Pivot from Live Labs

23 November 2009

Pivot is a new project from Microsoft Live Labs that looks very promising. It’s a system and interface for displaying and filtering large sets of information. From the Pivot website:

“Pivot makes it easier to interact with massive amounts of data in ways that are powerful, informative, and fun. We tried to step back and design an interaction model that accommodates the complexity and scale of information rather than the traditional structure of the Web.

When we use the Web today we treat the most fundamental scenarios as separate activities. Search takes us from many things to one, browsing moves us from one thing to another, and recommendations expose affinities that enable us to explore related topics. Can we do better by combining these scenarios into a more unified experience?

Pivot focuses on this intersection, enabling us to learn key lessons while attempting to broadly apply this philosophy to the Web. We hope that Pivot will inspire and fuel transformative experiences across the Web.”

That last bit is particularly interesting –the intersection of browse and search in particular. Of course, I wrote an entire chapter in Designing Web Navigation on integrating browse and search (see Chapter 11). There, I focused on more microscopic UI elements and techniques that web designers could readily implement. But at the heart of my argument is the fact that fundamentally, from an information seeking standpoint of the user, there really is not difference between browsing and search: people just want to find information.

Facetted search takes up a big chunk of Chapter 11 in DWN. And a good part of Pivot is an extension of faceted navigation. It’s really a big filter system using different facets–but a way more powerful way to do it, in what appears to be a much more direct and satisfying experience.

Notice also that the creators of Pivot talk about emotional connections and information experience in the trailer video. This is also something that distinquishes Pivot from other such inventions, I believe.

So, Pivot doesn’t appear to be a niche, scientific experiment with limited practical use. I think there are some quite valuable aspects to Pivot that hint at things to come. I’ll be interested to see where it goes.

Article Of The Future

24 August 2009

Cell Press, a publication by Elsevier Science, has an interesting effort to re-invent what an online scientific article looks like. They’ve launch a very light beta with two different prototypes, and they’ve invited the scientific community to provide feedback on this. See the Article of the Future beta website.

The Cell Press Content Innovation Team states their goals:

“The project’s goal is to take full advantage of online capabilities, allowing readers individualized entry points and routes through the content, while using the latest advances in visualization techniques. We have developed prototypes for two articles from Cell to demonstrate initial concepts and get feedback from the scientific community.”

I quite like this effort. It reflects the importance of how information in presented, which in turn affect user’s interaction content.

The team’s name is also quite interesting: “Content Innovation Team.” All too often innovation efforts are focused on technology and functionality. For a large a publisher like Reed Elsevier it really makes sense to innovate content.

It seems like the folks at Cell (finally) realized that as they move away from offline content formats, they can’t just take a shovel-ware approach of dumping their data online. Data is stored, but information is experienced. And this experience can even affect the user’s understanding of the content and the insights they draw from the material. It’s not a trivial matter. It’s also not an easy problem to solve–don’t underestimate it.

I would also add that offline content should also be innovated. That is, now that Cell is moving online, what does that mean for its offline formats both in the near term and the long term? Online content could completely replace offline, but it could also complement it. After all, people still enjoy reading books and journals as hard-copies. For example, perhaps a very condensed print version of Cell with only abstract could be distributed to subscribers. With a short, unique code the user could then get the full text. Or maybe they could swipe in a barcode to call up the online version?

This article in JASIST caught my eye:

“The role of subjective factors in the information search process,” by Jacek Gwizdka (Rutgers), Irene Lopatovska (Pratt). Forthcoming.

“Subjective factors” are any and all of the feelings and perceptions users have while seeking information:

In this article, we refer to ratings that were self-reported by searchers as subjective factors. This broad term includes affective (e.g., positive and negative feelings), cognitive (e.g., perception of being lost), and evaluative (e.g., judgment of task difficulty) measures that reflected searchers’ perceptions of self and the search environment.

Not surprisingly, the authors show that stuff like emotions and subjective perceptions play an important role in searching for information online:

The findings confirm some previous results as well as extend them. For example, we found the link between objective search-task difficulty (e.g., the amount of time spent on the task, number of pages visited, etc.) and the perception of task difficulty; the link between the mood and search behavior and outcomes. All these findings are in line with previous research on the role of subjective factors in information seeking.

Our original findings suggest that better mood before and during the search correlates with better mood after the search, but also correlates with worse performance on the search task and lower satisfaction. We based our analysis on statistical correlations. The effects of controlled factors , and the relationships between variables with a strictly defined order in time allow us to talk about plausible causal effects. If causal relationships are verified, the finding implies that mood might be a major predictor of search outcomes (regardless of the task or the interface), and individual differences between the searchers (optimists vs. pessimists, searchers experiencing positive vs. negative affective states, etc.) might have a major effect on search outcomes. To a certain degree, this finding also questions the efforts to design pleasurable search experiences since feeling good during the search does not seem to translate into better search task outcomes. Due to the potential importance of these findings, they should be further investigated and validated.

Very interesting that mood plays affects success of a search outcome.

I’ve written and talked about the potential role emotions play in information seeking in the past. In fact, the authors cite my 2006 JASIST article: “I’m feeling lucky : The role of emotions in seeking information on the Web.” And I presented a model at the 2004 IA Summit in Austin called the Information Search Experience (ISX).

Or see a previous blog posting with an excerpt from Designing Web Navigation, where I also briefly mention emotions and information seeking.

Usability of Paper

17 January 2009

I’m not necessarily a proponent of persisting paper-based resources per se, at least not from a sentimental or habitual perspective. Instead, I see a real experiential value to paper–one that’s hard to replicate with a computer. People like to read and use information on paper more than on screen. The experience is hard to replicate. Until computers can truly offer a similar experience to using paper, we’ll still see people using it.

I’ve written on this topic several times already. My now-old “Printing the Web” story over at B&A really marks the beginning of my interest in how we experience information on paper. It’s based on observations of real human behavior, namely that since the advent of the web and widespread personal computing we’ve not at all seen a decrease in the use of paper. This is also at the heart of a recent post on this blog.

Dimtry over at UsabilityPost muses about our attraction to paper as well. See his post “Why We Still Use Paper.” Many of his conclusions are accurate, I believe. We’ve been looking into this at work for a while, and I have evidence to support many of his claims. I would have liked to have a seen a better formulation of his points, though: the text and argument rambles a bit.

A commenter to the above post points to a new flexible, ultra thin screen by Sony. Impressive, but not surprising. We’ll probably be seeing more of this type of technology in the near future. E-Ink, flat screens you can draw on, portable ultra-thin devices: all of these will continue to mirror the experience we have with paper. That’s why understanding the information experience we have with paper resources should be the first line of investigation, I believe.

I’ve been thinking quite a bit about the role of paper and offline information resources in our overall information experience as humans interact with information. Some recent projects and research at work put the topic back on my plate. It was also part of my talk at the Euro IA conference (see Commercial Ethnography: Innovating Information Experiences).

A while back, I published a short essay on the potential importance of a creating print-friendly web pages. See Printing the Web in Boxes and Arrows (2003). The motivation for that article came from the observation that people quite like to print things from the web, as well as printing things like email. It seemed to me at the time that perhaps there is even a higher use of paper in offices since the web came along than before. So, our experience with a website may extend offline as well, and designers should consider how to best create print-friendly content.

Then, while at the CHI conference this year, I came across two fascinating exhibits related to paper. The first was digital paper, also called interactive paper. The second was iCandy, a program that allows you to print from your iTunes collections. Both of these stood out, particularly at a conference where digital interfaces are the focus of attention. With iCandy, for instance, the inventor was taking something that wasn’t originally available offline–iTunes–and making it available in paper format. Why bother, I thought? Is the experience with iTunes not sufficient? Is there something missing or something better than interacting with my music collection with iTunes? These two exhibits, as well as my own observations, suggest that yes–there is something with experiencing information on paper that gets completely lost in electronic formats.

Even more recently, I came across a post from innovation guru Scott Anthony about Plastic Logic’s new reader device. Interestingly, the hurdle he sees for Plastic Logic with their new reader is an experiential one:

But think about that target user. Hassled executives have defined patterns of behavior about how they interact with documents. They are used to flipping, scribbling, and shuffling through those documents. Sure, the weight of the paper can be cumbersome, but Plastic Logic faces an uphill climb if its device makes it harder rather than easier to review and comment on documents.

The experience we have with print materials is, in Anthony’s opinion, a potential showstopper for widespread acceptance of new reading devices. But it’s not just a matter of habit that we gravitate to read things on paper: there are real benefits of working with a multi-dimensional medium like paper that get lost in electronic formats.

Finally, Peter Merholz just posted about the paperless office again. He reaches back to a previous posting of his in which he disagrees with Malcolm Gladwell’s article in the New Yorker in 2002 on the topic. Peter makes some good points, but he’s also a little myopic on this one, particularly when making conclusions based on what he sees at his office. The habits of a cutting-edge, digital design office (Adaptive Path) hardly represent how people in other industries and businesses use paper.

I personally don’t foresee the complete disappearance of paper in the office in the near future, but I believe the time will come when online information experiences are rich enough to make it truly more advantageous to read a document from a computer screen than from paper. But even then, paper resources will still have a role. As noted at the end of an article entitled “On its way, at last” in The Economist–the catalyst for Peter’s post–we’ll probably see a re-purposing of paper. And Peter himself mentions such a shift as well in the Adaptive Path office.

Paradigm shifts with other types of media have also seen this type of re-purposing of old, incumbent media. As the radio became widespread, for instance, the initial reporting of a news event stopped being  communicate by lads standing on the corner shouting “Extra, Extra.” As a result, newspapers become more process-oriented. In other words, radio took over the announcing role, and people then got the details of the event from the newspaper. But newspapers didn’t go away.

So I don’t think we’ll see the completely paperless office, at least not on a widespread basis. Sure, some companies may actually achieve a paperless office, but they will be the exception rather than the norm. Instead, paper will come to serve a different role. It will be used for informal communication and extra-work events, or for brainstorming session and other creative exercises, or for official documents that require a signature and a company seal, for instance. There will be less of it, for sure–particularly for administrative things–but a completely paperLESS office is not only NOT in our future, but probably a bad idea.

As David Gelernter said back in 2000 in his Computer Manifesto:

“The ‘paperless office’ is a bad idea because paper is one of the most useful and valuable media ever invented.”

Amazon Window Shopping

3 November 2008

Here’s another example of a cross-dimensional display of information: Amazon’s Window shop. It’s not nearly as good as Sea Dragon or other zooming interfaces I’ve seen, but it shows there’ll probably be more and more of this kind of information display in the near future.

Deep Zoom

11 October 2008

This isn’t new, but I just came across Deep Zoom from MS. It’s based on their Seadragon technology, and it requires Silverlight.

Check out the Hard Rock Cafe collection of memorabilia. Combined with a faceted navigation on the left, you can really move around the items quite quickly. And because these are photos, you immediately see what you are getting. The zoom function is great–you can read the fine print on a document or see scratches on the guitars.

I can also imagine browsing publications, books, and newspapers with this technology, so there’d be application for it in information design and information architecture.


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