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?

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.”

Bumptop Interface

21 March 2008

Paul Sherman has a good article in UX Matters called Where’s My Stuff? Beyond the Nested Folder Metaphor. It includes a video of the Bumptop Interface, which was developed by Anand Agarawala and Ravin Balakrishnan. See the video of the interface on YouTube or more information on the Bumptop website, including a video from TED 2007. I came across this about a year and half ago, but forgot the name of the interface. So I was thankful to have come across it again on UX Matters.

The YouTube video of the Bumptop interface begins with an interesting thesis:

“In real work spaces, documents are piled and casually arranged in a way that subtly conveys information to the owner. This expressiveness is lost in today’s GUI desktop.”

In my ethnographic studies, this is something I’ve directly observed to be true in the law domain. Legal information workers implicitly use piles and location to manage workflow. Piles of client files around the office are essentially physical to-do lists. At a glance, they convey who has what amount of work to do and when. Other physical attributes of paper documents support this type of workflow management, such as color and size and additional flags sticking out of the sides of books and folders.

Converting this intuitive, organic way of working to an online system is difficult. You lose an overview quickly. Even with two computer monitors, it’s hard to get the same kind of spatial horizontal-ness you can easily achieve with paper documents. Online workflow management also requires a great amount of discipline: you must rigorously update information in order for the system to function. This, in my opinion, is the biggest hurdle. The benefits of online document management and workflow management are in the long run perhaps higher, but the change needed to get there is quite large because it requires a fundamental change in behavior.

In light of the iPhone and MS Surface and other similar interfaces, the Bumptop interface has potential, in my opinion. It’s a break-away from the tyranny of the typical GUI model. Not sure if Bumptop will solve the loss of expressiveness current desktop GUIs cause, but it pointing to thinking in the right direction…or at least in a different direction.

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?


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