Managed Q Search

11 February 2008

Just came across Managed Q, a search application the inventors describe as “dedicated to helping you manage your entire Search Experience: from the keyword, to results, to previewing, to refinement and repeating with a new query.”

The entity extraction around person, place, and thing seems fairly good. But I’m particularly interested in how you interact with the entities. Just by rolling over any one of them, you can see the precise locations in the found documents where that term appears. Niffty.

Of course, to do this they also only show images of the pages found. That’s right–no text list. Even the paging navigation show thumbnails of the next or previous pages. There are a few interaction problems here and there, but overall it’s quite an interesting experience. I like the thumbnail browse view–it’s helpful for somes types of queries and information seeking.

Just got tipped off to Press Display, a news aggregation service from NewspaperDirect. Seems the biggest difference this site offers over competitors is the information experience. They have something called the Press Reader, which displays articles in the context of their original printed formats. You can see the headlines, images, colors, and layout of the original source, among other things. Their tag line: “Redefining the Reading Experience™“. In other words, the information experience is a USP for Press Display.

Here’s how they describe their “Smart Navigation”:

“SmartNavigation in PressDisplay.com provides advanced digital features such as interactive tables of content, full graphics and text views, foreign language translation capabilities, cross-title searching, sharing of articles through email or blog postings, bookmarks, advanced search and monitoring, article and page printing, clickable URL’s, emails and phone numbers and text–to–voice conversion.”

One thing I particularly like is that Press Display allows you to get a good overview of a source, offering a table of contents for entire an newspaper, for instance. You can also browse through all images in a newspaper or through all of the advertisements. (I don’t know of any retrieval system that even makes advertisements available.)

And of course, there are display controls for zooming or showing text in multiple columns and so forth. It’s quite well done. Have a look for yourself–it’s worth it.

Screen Shot of Press Display
(click to enlarge)

What’s more, there are lots of ways to capture the information you find, so it’s not just about an online experience. Download, print, and email options are available. There are also features like RSS and mobile versions of texts.

This all begs the question, Why go to great lengths to retain the look and feel of original publications? Isn’t text just text? Does it matter how the information is presented?

Well, according to people like Andrew Dillon and Misha Vaughan the answer is, Yes–it matters a lot. (See: “It’s the Journey and the Destination“). They’ve investigated what they call information shape, which they describe like this:

“Shape is a property of information that is conveyed both by physical form and information content. Separating these elements completely is perhaps impossible but one can talk of the distinction between the layout and sequencing of information as viewed by the consumer (user or reader) and the cognitive representation of meaning that employs (at least in theoretical terms) knowledge structures such as schemata, mental models and scripts. The representation of meaning is crucial to any analysis of hypermedia design and use as it gives the task real human value, yet it is precisely this component that is frequently by-passed in evaluations rooted directly in physical navigation terms.”

Almost sounds like the folks at Press Display used this notion as a mantra for their design of the interface.

In the age of RSS and atomizing data on the web to point that everything is mash-up-able with everything else, it’s almost ironic that Press Display has emerged at this time. For instance, my view of the blogs I monitor via my RSS reader is extremely homogeneous: everything looks the same. So should we care more about document genre when designing for information experiences?

On one hand, I feel that all too often we strip out all of the qualities of information that native formats offer. These are qualities that give it shape and meaning to us: color, size, position, images, etc. This stuff makes a difference in comprehension.

On the other hand, I’m not sure that I’d use Press Display or find it terribly helpful. Even though they’ve done a pretty good job with the display and interaction, I’m not convinced this service is any better or worse because of the information experience. It’s different, for sure. But the relative advantage in the long term isn’t clear to me, unfortunately. (Of course, I’m not an information professional and my daily work doesn’t center around finding, using, and managing information.)

Maybe there’s a happy medium between text-based information retrieval systems and something like Press Display?

Michael Wesch, creator of the famous Web 2.0…The Machine is Us/ing Us video, produced two new videos. He’s now made them publicly available:

Information R/Evolution
http://youtube.com/watch?v=-4CV05HyAbM
This is based on the observations of Clay Shirky and David Weinberger that the order of information in the ditigal has very different rules. It’s nice to watch, but the argument is an old one.

A vision of college students today
http://youtube.com/watch?v=dGCJ46vyR9o
This one is about the state of secondary education in the U.S. Some interesting statistics here.
Both  make you think, so I have to give credit to Professor Wesch once again.

I’d like to post some thoughts about presentations I saw at the Euro IA 2007 Conference. Already mentioned Are’s presentation.

Here’s a summary of mine, which is essentially the last slide in my presentation (available on SlideShare) that sums everything up:

  • The cost of adding more information is noise. Don’t forget this when people talk about “unlimited shelf space” online.
  • There are different types of sources of metadata to consider: user-generated metadata (e.g., tagging), technically generated metadata (e.g., entity extraction), and owner-created metadata (e.g., controlled vocabularies).
  • There are also different types of structures of organization to give meaning and context to the metadata when you represent it: user-created structures (e.g., filtering tags for special interest groups), technically created structure (e.g., Google News page), and owner-created structures (e.g., a thesaurus).
  • In the Long Tail, any and all types of metadata and types of structure are needed. Forget about the silly arguments that one will replace the other. Think of it as matrix with the types of metadata on the side and the types of structures on the top.
  • Further, since niche markets fit the description of a bounded domain, and since traditional taxonomies and classification are often good strategies for organizing information in bounded domains, as Clay Shirky points out, AND as we move to a culture of niche markets, as Chris Anderson predicts, traditional IA and taxonomy will become more important.
  • Additionally, niche markets are defined by the categories you create. Online, a “pile of information”–as David Weinberger says in Everything is Miscellaneous--begins and ends with the IA and organization you develop.
  • IA in the Long Tail will be about second order design. You may not be able to customize each page or local navigation scheme. Instead, you need to provide people with the tools they need to make sense of information.
  • This means a shift for IA to look at abstract, broader patterns of human information behavior and of information structures in a domain. Card sorting is great, but we need to go well beyond this. We need to look at users much more closely, as well as the inherent patterns of information in a domain.

Not the most practical talk I’ve given, but many people thanked for the talk and said it got them thinking. So it seemed to have been well-received.

Here’s a really good video of Bill Buxton talking about sketching:
http://www.brightcove.com/title.jsp?title=323680309&channel=324389485.
It’s long–about 90 minutes. The contents correspond to his recent book, Sketching User Experiences, which I don’t have yet.

He covers a lot more great deal more than just actual sketching. The talk–and presumably the book–is ultimately about design, innovation, and the overall user’s experience. He also covers things like product development processes, touching on the notion of getting the right design versus getting the design right.

One thing that struck me was this quote:
“If you have the best designers in the world working for you and you don’t have an executive who is at the power of the CTO directly reporting to the president…who is called the Chief Design Officer, then you should fire all of your usability people and all of you industrial design people, because you are telegraphing to your entire organization that you don’t take this seriously, so why should they.”

Ouch.

But he’s right. At most companies, Design (with a capital D) is about getting the design right and not getting the right design. Also, Design isn’t integrated into all other parts of the business, and so has little chance of succeding. You need the C-level support. Punkt. Whether or not the Design Team should pack up and go home is questionable, though.

Buxton notes that sketching is different from prototyping. Sketches are disposable, unfinished, and ask questions. Prototypes answer questions and suggest a concrete design. And since ideas are a dime a dozen, you need at least 5 sketch alternatives to get the right design. This is what Design is all about. It’s not about the designer, but about exploration, throughing things out, and making mistakes.

In sketching information experiences, I’m wondering what the tools are. Wireframes, of course, are a staple of information architecture. But how do taxonomists and librarians sketch organization systems?

Sure, there are tools to help develop and manage abstract information structures, but is this really sketching? Is this really design? Maybe not. Maybe IA isn’t a design discipline. If alternatives aren’t explored, then it is not.

So what are the sketching tools for information experiences? Post-Its? Card Sorting? Sitemaps? Anything else?

Is Relevance Relevant?

24 June 2007

For decades, information science has developed and examined the notion of relevance in information retrieval (IR). By and large, the approach to measuring relevance has been rather technical. Recall and precision have been the two main measures:

  • Recall looks at whether all of the documents relevant to a given query are returned.
  • Precision measures whether only the relevant documents are returned.

To measure relevance, you first need to create a key. This is a list of matching documents in a given database to a given query. But this key is itself artificial and doesn’t take into account any of the significant contextual factors people employ when determining relevance in real-life situations. It’s made up ahead of time by group of people who themselves don’t have a real information need in a real IR situation.

Tefko Saracevic points to a broader model of relevance in his article Relevance Reconsidered [1]. This includes the notion of technical relevance, but takes a more holistic look at relevance accounting for information interaction in IR situations. In addtion to technical relevance, he adds other types to the mix:

  • Topical or subject relevance: relation between the subject or topic expressed in a query, and topic or subject covered by retrieved texts, or more broadly, by texts in the systems file, or even in existence. It is assumed that both queries and texts can be identified as being about a topic or subject. Aboutness is the criterion by which topicality is inferred.
  • Cognitive relevance or pertinence: relation between the state of knowledge and cognitive information need of a user, and texts retrieved, or in the file of a system, or even in existence. Cognitive correspondence, informativeness, novelty, information quality, and the like are criteria by which cognitive relevance is inferred.
  • Situational relevance or utility: relation between the situation, task, or problem at hand, and texts retrieved by a systems or in the file of a system, or even in existence. Usefulness in decision making, appropriateness of information in resolution of a problem, reduction of uncertainty, and the like are criteria by which situational relevance is inferred.
  • Motivational or affective relevance: relation between the intents, goals, and motivations of a user, and texts retrieved by a system or in the file of a system, or even in existence. Satisfaction, success, accomplishment, and the like are criteria for inferring motivational relevance.”

A recent study in JASIST (July 2007) also shows that relevance is very situational and contextual [2]. The researchers looked at how people picked documents from random-ordered results lists from different search engines (Google, MSN Search, and Yahoo!).

“The findings show that the similarities between the users’ choices and the rankings of the search engines are low. We examined the effects of the presentation order of the results, and of the thinking styles of the participants. Presentation order influences the rankings, but overall the results indicate that there is no ‘average user,’ and even if the users have the same basic knowledge of a topic, they evaluate information in their own context, which is influenced by cognitive, affective, and physical factors.”

Cognitive, affective, and physical factors? Yikes. Recall and precision don’t look at any of these, yet these were found to be significant. So what does the traditional notion of relevance in IR really measure with recall and precision?

I believe there is a much broader context that needs to be considered–one that accounts for the entire information experience. Not sure what this is, but context and situation seem to trump recall and precision in real-world IR. Perhaps relevance isn’t even relevant any more in the online, ditigal world anyway. Perhaps we need a entirely new model for understanding how and when people select documents in IR situations.

[1] Tefko Saracevic (1996). Relevance reconsidered. Information science: Integration in perspectives. Proceedings of the Second Conference on Conceptions of Library and Information Science. Copenhagen (Denmark), 201-218.

[2] Judit Bar-Ilan, Kevin Keenoy, Eti Yaari, & Mark Levene (July 2007). User rankings of search engine results. JASIST (58, 9) 1254-1266.

Silobreaker is a current awareness service that launched at the beginning of 2006. It’s designed for the “light information professional,” as Silobreaker puts it. (I’m assuming this description doesn’t refer to the weight of the person, but how much information work they do). The product is rich with various features for visualizing, extracting, and clustering search results to expose relationships in content and give as much context as possible.

They’ve recently re-done the interface. Check out the the beta launch of Silobreaker.

Not surprisingly, the interface is very link rich: you can click on just about anything at any time. There are also quite a few mouse-over features that reveal a quick view of information in layers and such. I like this overall approach and feel it’s appropriate for the target group. But frankly, I prefer the original version of Silobreaker. The information design of the beta product doesn’t seem to help visually scanning information on the screen, and it appears more cluttered somehow (although the amount of information is about the same).

Overall, Silobreaker lives up to its claim that it provides numerous ways to slice and dice content. For a relatively new servcie, it has many strengths and an impressive range of features and functionalities. The underlying concept moves away from searching in favour of browsing; however, the product is complex and presents potential interaction problems such as small texts and targets to click. Nonetheless, Silobreaker’s unique approach is likely to appeal to many users who conduct news research and require current awareness content on a regular basis.

Here’s something I’ve been thinking about for a long time and hope to work up into a presentation or story:

- With the advent of digital information available online, people pointed to how much more information there is than before. At first it was about the volume of information.

- But then others pointed out that it’s not the volume, it’s the access to information that changed. The information was previously available, we just couldn’t get to it.

- But really, you could get it if you had enough time. So my thought is that it’s not the amount of information or increased access to it, but the time it takes to find, use, understand, and experience information that has really changed.

This is an important aspect of Information Foraging Theory described by Peter Pirolli and Stuart Card: “We have argued that in an information-rich world, the real design problem to be solved is not so much how to collect more information, but rather, how to optimize the user’s time.” Foraging for information in the digital world is a trade-off between the perceived value of information and the time it takes to interact with and experience it.

Relevance, then, is also time dependent. Relevance guru Tefko Saracevic hints at this with the notion of Situational Relevance in a paper titled Relevance Reconsidered.

Perhaps the Time of Information needs more attention. Or is this so obvious that it doesn’t even need to be mentioned?

Information Experience

31 March 2007

Welcome to Experiencing Information, a blog about the way in which humans need, find, use, manage, manipulate, and experience information in their lives. The direction and goal of the blog will work itself out over time, I hope.

The name is inspired from a quote from Andrew Dillon, Dean of the School of Information at UT Austin. He said: “Data is stored; information experienced.”

I also gave a presentation on what I called the Information Search Experience (ISX) at the IA Summit in 2004. See the presentation deck for more information.

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