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.

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