what i do, tongue in cheek edition

Tuesday, May 23rd, 2006

human metadata interaction

ba da bam

titular humor

Monday, May 22nd, 2006

today’s the deadline for submitting a title for our capstone presentations (which take place this friday, for those of you graced to live in a world where that is not imminently obvious) so that they can send out a list of what’s what for the folks who might decide to drop by.

titles for academic presentations often tend to follow the following format:

Clever/Silly Modification of Well Known Saying or Metaphor: jargony description of work that implies some loose connection to aforementioned metaphor but really just uses too many words and sounds a bit self-important

so after some late-night/early-morning brainstorming with erik, and a chance to sleep on it today, i submitted the following just now, a half-hour before the deadline (so that’s that):

Thinking Outside the Inbox: Strategies for unlocking the potential of tagging in the email environment

safe enough
fitting enough
pithy enough

it just barely beat out:

The Persistent Geranium: Strategies for unlocking the potential of tagging in the email environment

because i don’t have Quite enough chutzpah to be that cool, largely because i think that it would have made yvonne shake her head all the way back to bristol, and i’ve already given her enough to shake her head about

but, all that aside, let the record show that the true title, on the record of my heart, will always be:

Ready or Not, Here I Come!: Strategies for tagging in email hide and seek

because the second part cracks me up, and the first is so, so truuuue…

ok, back to work.
three more days to olly olly oxen free!

clarity or catastrophe

Monday, May 15th, 2006

there are a lot of ways that email could be changing.
a lot of exciting stuff is going on online that seems to be indicating a shift in the way we look at all of our information, not just our email.
in the meantime, email is a daily part of the lives of millions of people who have never heard of gmail, or folksonomy, or ajax.
the average american office worker has been using email for ten years now, and in that span of time it has crept into more and more regions of the job, to the point that, for many people, several hours a day are taken up with the activity.
this increased role of email is a blessing and a curse.
as more kinds of information are funnelled into the inbox, the task of email management has become more complex.
no longer just a repository of memos and chain letters, email now serves as a task management system, a scheduling resource, and a means for shuffling versions of files between members of teams as revisions are made. the expectation of an electronic record has also increased the demand for information about communications that was previously lost in the ether – when was this sent? what did they say when we asked them _____? did so and so ever reply to that request for a new tax form?
the management of all of this still falls upon the office worker, who has received no special training, and who tends to approach the work of email classification in the same way that he/she approaches paper filing.

tagging allows us to annotate along multiple dimensions, which enables us to find things from more angles. “do you remember that memo last month about the new grant protocols?” or “wasn’t there a memo where craig replied and asked about funding implications? that’s the one i want!”

tagging is time-consuming, however, and adding another task to the work of organization doesn’t seem the clearest way to make things better. if people have a hard time figuring out a file structure, they have a hard time figuring out a tag structure as well. it takes a committment that many people don’t have the time to give, despite the fact that it would bring major benefits in the long run.
there are reasons that tagging is different than filing – the opportunity cost of picking one tag over another is much lower, and an understanding of the final structure isn’t necessary when you set out. this isn’t immediately clear, however, and there are still potentially overwhelming considerations of bundling and repetition.

what i wonder is, can we make tagging easier?
what makes it hard?
what can the computer do for us, and what must we do for ourselves?
can we make the barriers in front of our parts any smaller?

i’m to here with it, i say

Monday, May 15th, 2006

ok, so what is the real thing that i need to know to improve the way we categorize things? to improve the way we find things? to help us find what we want when we need it? to help us trip over what we want to trip over? so many of the things that people are doing around me are relevant to this question… i sit here listening to a pandora generated radio station and have been using a search engine that aims to allow me to refine my queries by augmenting my keywords with natural language to revisit so many of the interesting things that i’ve found over the months.
there are a lot of ways that the haystack project really is the kind of thing that i want to be doing. they have really great goals, and a good view of the problem space. but it’s still project-centered… it still seems to require so much work… i have absolutely no good reason to say that, though. the only criticism i can fairly offer is that the prototype is so ungodly processor-intensive that i have been put off from downloading it to try it out myself. but i should do it at work anyway. tomorrow.
otherwise, i just need to give myself that real good stark look in the mirror.
i think that i am resisting the storyboarding and prototyping because i feel like pulling together some kind of mockup at this stage that tries to incorporate all this big stuff in my head would just be for the sake of trying to put a face on things that are not really ready yet. it feels like i’m trying to prove that i’ve done something, but just spitting out an interface feels kind of masturbatory – “look! this is a neat rollover effect, isn’t it?! this will TOTALLY ROCK the user’s world!”
i’m not even saying that the ideas that i am turning around are bad.
or that giving them form and testing them would be bad.
i’m saying that i haven’t really done enough of my homework on what others are doing to make the best offering i can, and i regret that.
and i’m saying that i don’t think i’m giving enough credit to the other work that i Have been doing.
i don’t just want to go all web 2.0izer on the bigger ideas and say that the answer lies in greasemonkey hacks.
i don’t want to draft some airy proposal about how things will be better in some shiny, happy future.
i want to do something real.
even if it’s tiny.
i feel like i’m just searching for what looks and sounds good, and i want to stop that crap.
so here’s what i’m asking myself now:
if you had two weeks to do something that would improve the way that people relate with their email, what would you do? what has this year really taught you about what is needed?
now DO IT

what if we just capture what we search for?

Monday, May 15th, 2006


Monday, May 15th, 2006

office worker – outlook
julie is an office worker here at IU.
email is a daily part of her work experience. she starts the day by logging on to her computer and scanning the messages that have arrived since the end of the day yesterday. some of her messages are questions that she can answer immediately. some of her messages are reminders of tasks or meetings…

student – gmail

life changes when we trust that we can find what we’re looking for.

my branch, take three – it’s actually just a twig (the laundromat edition)

Monday, May 15th, 2006

the way we organize things impacts how well we will be able to find them.
this seems obvious, but i used to think of organization and search as two separate questions, and now i think that’s misguided.
people who are able to find what they need have one of a few traits:
– a limited information space
– power users of tools
– skilled organizers, dedicated to the task
it’s not good to rely on any of these things.
gmail reles on 2
focused tools rely on chunking into 1 (which takes 3)
on the web, folksonomists are saying that we can get the benefits of 3 without a lot of work because there are so many of us. but most of the tools they cite still rely on 2. the’re working on that, though.
semantic websters say we need to do 3, either by letting experts do it or just sucking it up and learning to do it ourselves.
neither of these camps address PIM though, and all of them could benefit from a more intentional focus on how we can afford annotation at the interactional level.
i looked at email habits to find some common problems, explored how prevalent these problems really are, and came up with ideas to address them.
the ideas are driven by a desire to understand how we are reconceptualizing location in the digital world.
it seems like we need to think about multi-dimensional location and higher level organization.

my branch, take two – bring on the sap

Friday, May 12th, 2006

i don’t know about you, but i’m overloaded by all the talk about information overload.
between the news reports, bestsellers, and advertisements about the next best way to whisk us back to a simpler life, it’s easy to start feeling a bit jaded, and to want to build a wall between ourselves and all that nonsense. we all do our best to keep our eyes front and focus on the things that matter, and walling ourselves off is one of the ways that we manage.
but walling ourselves off is also dangerous. it reinforces our stereotypes, and keeps us from making the connections between different worlds of information that could allow us to solve some of our most pressing problems.
when we are excited by information, rather than overwhelmed by it, then we can do some really amazing things, but as long as we are overwhelmed, we are more likely to push new ideas away, surround ourselves with only what is already familiar, and distract ourselves with whatever we have at hand.

now i’m going to say something that might not make much sense.

i don’t believe that we are really overwhelmed by information.

what actually overwhelms us are the decisions we need to make in order to process information.

what is it?
how is it like or unlike other things we already know about?
what might we use it for?
how will we find it if we need it later?

these decisions take time and energy, and performing them for every piece of information that crosses our radar is impossible.
so things fly by us, we lose track of what they are and whether they are important, we aren’t sure if we’ll be able to find them later, and we worry that we are making bad choices.
this stresses us out, and makes us build walls.

one of the walls we tend to build is around technology.
since technology, and particularly computers, are the source of so much of our decision overload, we tend to
every once in a while a new gizmo comes out that promises to make things better, and there are always those few geeky people who believe that we are crossing a new frontier of superproductivity where we will all be able to write great novels and learn to do the cha cha while running a business and fitting in a midafternoon nap, and all thanks to the latest and greatest mobile wifi superlight mindreading fingertop computer.
but for the most part

i think that this is a dangerous misconception, but to change it we have to focus less on gadgetry that makes more decisions possible and more on whatever it takes to make decisions easier. one of the principal decisions that we have to make for each piece of information we encounter is a decision about annotation.
annotation boils down to where we put things.
where we put things boils down to how we’ll find them later.
if we always knew that we could find things when we went looking for them, there’d be a lot less to worry about.

this year i have looked at email in order to learn more about the problems that people have with knowing where to put or find things, and to explore new ways that we might be able to think about the design of email systems in order to make those decisions easier. designers have begun to realize that there is a lot we can do to increase the number of ways that people can manage their email, but current interfaces don’t really do very much to help people know what the options are, and so the feeling of overload is not dispelled.

my branch, take one

Tuesday, May 9th, 2006

designers spend a lot of time whining about how unwilling people are to tag, or file, or organize their information in any way.
we say that people are too lazy, or too stupid, or just too busy, so it’s up to us to figure out ways that they won’t have to think about it.
we say we either need to:
a) make computers smart enough to do our organizing for us – AI, machine learning;
b) let the experts do the organizing and the rest of us can benefit – semantic web, digital libraries;
c) let people be lazy and stupid and busy, but rely on the assumption that, when all of their input is pooled together, the wisdom of the crowd will prevail – tagging, folksonomies.

the problems that i see with these arguments are:
a) computers are cool, but so are our brains, and one thing that our brains Really excel at is grouping things together for interesting reasons. it seems silly to not let ourselves do our stuff. there are plenty of things that the computer is better at than we are, like keeping track of stuff after we make groups out of it, and manipulating the information once we find what we want. why don’t we divide and conquer?
b) this doesn’t help us with our personal information, which is growing daily, and which is increasingly overlapping with “public” information. what is my record of visited websites? what are the copies of papers or music or art that i download? what are my notes on things that are otherwise in the public domain? digitization makes us each the keepers of our own personal overlay of a huge library of information, and other people will never be able to organize it for us.
c) this goes a long way, but tags themselves can become overwhelming. we shouldn’t completely spurn the power of a meaningful hierarchy. this also doesn’t help with all personal information. sometimes we’re the only one who sees things, and sometimes we really do want Our tags.

bottom line: i think that some amount of annotation is necessary for us to manage our digital information, and we shouldn’t write ourselves out of the picture. interfaces can do a lot more to help people figure out where to put things, and i want to test some ideas about how that might look in the email environment.

starting questions:
what problems do people have right now?
– initial interviews
– booklets
what are designers already doing?
– initial lit review
– gmail
what should be possible within an email interface, but currently isn’t (or is deeply hidden)?
– filtering by any criteria
– tracing a trail of related messages
– annotation without submenus
– related categories/keywords always visible

what do we need to go to the next level?
– richer, more visible metadata
— not just tags, but tag types (facets)
— annotation integrated into current interactions

design questions:
– what can be automated and what can’t?
– what are the necessary facets? (how do we identify them and how many are there?)
– how static do these facets need to be?
– how does a faceted system compare with current systems in terms of:
— speed of retrieval
— quantity of annotation
— quality of annotation
— sense of “scanning a shelf”

more outlining

Monday, May 8th, 2006

information overload does not mean that we have too much information

what stresses us out is not understanding how to organize it all

organization is about putting things where we know we will be able to find them later

in the physical world, this means figuring out the one best place for each thing, and, if we have time, putting references in all the next-best places

this takes a lot of time and energy, and most people are not very good at it.

some people learn to do it for a living, and a lot of the organizational tools that we use today come from their work – librarians, statisticians, information architects.

at their best, these tools create a structure that allows us to access information from multiple angles, because we are driven to look for things for multiple reasons. we might only know the author, or a keyword, or the color of the binding, and we want to be able to search according to whatever we have.

digital information is unique because it makes this multifaceted classification very easy – we don’t have to actually “put” the information in multiple places in order to access it. we only have to create pointers, and we can make as many copies as we need.

it is because it is so easy that it so quickly becomes overwhelming. we are each able to create specialized pointers, and maintain our own personal library of everything we see. we are all suddenly our own librarians, but we don’t really know what we’re doing, and the information is piling up higher by the day.
we don’t know where to put it all so that we know that we’ll be able to find it later (which means that we don’t feel organized (which means that we feel overwhelmed)), and the fact that there is more freedom about where to put things only makes the question more complex.

so my big question is: “how do we structure the digital world so that we know how to find what we’re looking for?”
which begs the related question: “how do we design a system that helps us figure out where to put things?”

i’m focusing on email to explore this question for my capstone

for a long time, we have put things in folders, which is pretty much what we do in the physical world
this model has a lot of strengths
– it is familiar
– hierarchy makes finding things easy when we know where to start
– it gives us a firm sense of where our information is
but it also has weaknesses
– it is time-consuming
– hierarchy makes finding things hard when we don’t know where to start
– it doesn’t handle things being in more than one place very well

so where else can we put things?

do we really have to “put” it somewhere?

can we just change the way we think about where it is?

building bridges to information rather than carrying information to a place
– tags, filters, and saved searches
– facets