Archive for September, 2011

Book review: Alex Wright’s Glut: Mastering information through the ages

September 26, 2011 Leave a comment

I recently finished reading Alex Wright’s book “Glut”, a highly-readable meta-history about information. It seeks to connect many centuries of advances in information management, categorization, communication, and sharing. This book is highlighted by ample examples and figures and images to aid with comprehension. Despite the title, the book is not so much about information overload as about finding ways to capture and share information–toward advancing a species (usually but not always humans) to a position of greater knowledge and understanding.

Alex Wright describes himself as an “information architect” with projects to his credit at places like IBM, Microsoft, Yahoo!, and Harvard. He’s done graduate work in usability engineering at UC Berkeley and in journalism at Harvard (where he also served as a librarian for a while), so he understands the technological and library-science aspects of mastering information. He’s authored articles in venues like interactions magazine, Boxes and Arrows, and the New York Times (where’s he’s an editor and frequent contributor). And he spent many of his formative years in the great state of Virginia.

Weighing in at only 238 pre-appendix pages, this book certainly does not seek to provide thorough coverage of the thousands of years of information history that are encompassed. As such, the author is accused by many reviewers of cherry-picking things of interest that support his arguments. However, that seems to be the prerogative of an author of this type of book–you can’t cover it all in this sort of meta-history, and there will always be an incompleteness in this sort of book. The author even acknowledges as much in the introduction, likening himself to a cartographer of old trying to draw a map of distant lands–and making the expected errors of omission and commission.

Much of the early parts of the book seeks to connect the ways that humans deal with information through biological and sociological arguments–which often come across as incomplete or unconvincing. I’m not at all sure that epigenetic rules drive our online classification systems of today, ice-age communities portend Internet-age chatrooms, and similar arguments from the early chapters seem like a bit of a stretch (or maybe it’s just incompletely argued, or maybe I’m missing something). I’ll certainly give the author credit for bringing up the possibility of connections, and some may prove correct with further study (however tenuous they seem in this book).

But the book got progressively better, and the last few chapters (the ones dealing with more glut-tonous problems) were really engaging. Wright covered visionaries like Cutter, Dewey, McLuhan, Otlet, Engelbart, Nelson, and Berners-Lee–comparing and contrasting their ideas and probing at why they were successful (or not) in pursuing their vision. I particularly like Wright’s focus on the arc of success for many of these visionaries, as he doesn’t merely touch upon their well-known work but instead looks at their paths to success, why they were successful, and why they failed. His final chapter, titled “Memories of the Future”, is a too-short connection of the themes of the book to recent and ongoing events in information management.

In summary, the book seems like a great fit for someone looking for a general book about information and library science–perhaps a good match for a professionalism in computing class, or an auxiliary reading for other computer science or HCI classes.


Rationale in SE and rationale in UE–what’s the difference?

September 20, 2011 1 comment

The question of the difference between design rationale in software engineering and usability engineering came up at my UC Boulder talk last week. It’s something that I’ve been thinking about for a while, and more recently as I’ve been reading about design rationale from a software engineering perspective (Burge, McCall, Schneider, etc.).

The big difference seems to be in the certainty embedded in the rationale. Design rationale in software engineering seeks to establish a position of truth, rooted in the functionality of the computer (compared to the nature of physical artifacts, as seen in other fields). The preface and introduction of Burge’s Rationale-based Software Engineering book do a good job of distinguishing design rationale in software engineering from design rationale in other fields.

In contrast, design rationale in usability engineering (and even more so in HCI) seeks to provide pointers toward the right directions–through methods, approaches, or lessons learned. Even a repository of web design patterns like van Duyne’s Design of Sites is lauded not because it preaches HCI truths but because it discusses how to design (e.g., how to promote e-commerce, how to settle on a page layout, how to customize for mobile devices). It includes checklists and is rooted in context, allowing the reader to decide what’s relevant.

This is why I feel claims (or something like them) are the future of design rationale in UE/HCI. They are meant to be hypothetical, subject to change based on changes in context, advances in knowledge, and retargeting of product design. They are more flexible than design rationale methods from software engineering and other fields, reflecting the flexible nature of the field of HCI. But that then makes the creation of claims libraries or other reuse repositories much more difficult–one must balance correctness with hypothesis, permanence with flexibility.

PIC-UP Mobile: For mobile by mobile

September 14, 2011 1 comment

Much of the ongoing research in my group focuses on usability tools for application developers, centered on knowledge transfer and decision-making among teams of designers. At the heart of my approach is the notion of a claim as a unit for knowledge capture, sharing, and negotiation–claims provide a falsifiable, designer-digestible chunk of knowledge that encapsulates an interface feature, its upsides, and its downsides. The small, hypothetical nature of a claim provides designers with opportunities to debate and evolve ideas to meet the needs of novel problems. Recently, Shahtab Wahid led a quality series of papers at Interact, DIS, and CHI (available from my pubs page) that summarizes our progress and describes PIC-UP for those interested in learning more about it.

An emerging focus is on tools for diverse teams, particularly teams of domain experts with little or no expertise in usability engineering. Since it’s tough for many companies to hire a large team of usability professionals to oversee interface development efforts, a suite of tools has promise to assist with the capture, sharing, and deliberation that must happen when addressing the needs of large stakeholder groups. It certainly doesn’t remove the need for a usability expert, but it can help magnify the power of experts, allowing a smaller number of experts to contribute to a larger number of projects.

As a next step, we are working to transition PIC-UP to a tool we call PIC-UP Mobile that will be useful in industrial and educational settings–specifically, to assist in the early-project development of mobile interface designs. We want the tool to be embedded with a small but high-quality set of claims that can be used in design activities. Designers will be able to browse, rate, group, and evolve claims during the design process. Design sessions can create scenarios or storyboards that incorporate key claims, with This will enable a large and diverse set of designers to have meaningful roles in the design of appropriate user interfaces for human experts–particularly domain experts with little or no knowledge about user interface design whose opinions all too often are often ignored.

Based on an established context, PIC-UP Mobile should help to answer questions like these:
– How can an interface best show multimodal information to a user within a unique context?
– How can an interface enable appropriate interaction.
– What are the tradeoffs in choosing one design technique over another?
– Where is more research needed to determine an appropriate interface approach?

There are tons of application domains where this seems well-suited: medicine, education/training, command-and-control, gas-and-oil discovery and processing. All of these domains integrate diverse situations in which stakeholders with differing backgrounds must reach decisions about acceptable (if not optimal!) approaches to addressing a problem. We expect that PIC-UP Mobile will help in reaching these decisions toward defining appropriate user interfaces.

McCall meeting

September 13, 2011 Leave a comment

I had a wonderful conversation with Ray McCall and Clayton Lewis last week, in which we discussed directions for design rationale generally, and for claims as a key element in design rationale specifically.

Ray was a student of Horst Rittel at UC Berkeley during the late 1970s–an architect by training who is in a UC-Boulder/UC-Denver professor position in architecture and planning. He’s worked with Clayton Lewis, Gerhard Fischer, and Anders Morch here at UC, and he’s written and edited several books on design rationale with Jack Carroll, Janet Burge, and other software engineers.

Ray created his own version of IBIS called PHI (procedural hierarchy of issues), building on the notion of issues in IBIS to create an argumentative structure (not unlike one purpose in claims creation). He was really plugged in to the design rationale ideas of the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s–JANIS, Alexander’s Timeless Way of Building, Marshall & Shipman’s schema-based elicitation arguments–and he’s stayed up on the more recent approaches from the software engineering domain.

One key idea from the session was Ray’s suggestion that claims upsides and downsides are too polarizing–too likely to prejudice a designer toward thinking of an effect as positive or negative, when it may be quite different in a different context. As an example, a claim might suggest that a blinking light is interruptive (a negative) but it might be a positive when interruption is desired.

One piece of career advice from the session I’ll oversimplify as such: “be Tim, not Ted”. Ted Nelson, the father of hypertext, makes interesting and provocative arguments about the lack of scalability in the web, the poor granularity choice of a “page”, and the lack of bi-directional links. But by many reports he doesn’t compromise on his vision for the web, and his Xanadu system has been described as the longest-running vaporware system of all time. Contrast that to Tim Berners-Lee, father of the World Wide Web, who essentially gave away his idea to ensure a widely used product. It’s tough to compromise–especially when you’re right–but sometimes it’s the right thing to do. Sometimes!

The future of claims

September 12, 2011 Leave a comment

In preparing to write a book about claims, I have the opportunity and obligation to expound upon what I think is the future (more like present-future) of claims.

To varying degrees, all of these arguments more generally apply to design rationale–but I think claims are particularly well-suited to solve many of the traditional problems with DR (as expounded upon in the first bullet).

Here are some current thoughts:

– Fixing design rationale with claims. Are claims the perfect instantiation of design rationale? Probably not! (Though anyone who has worked with me might be convinced that I feel differently.) Even though claims seek to hypothesize rather than expound the truth, there’s always a danger that they will be read as truth. A key step: Defining claims to getting rid of upsides and downsides–they are too polarizing and can lead to bias. Replace them with bullets or (partial) ratings to allow the designer to decide what’s an upside and downside within the context of the design or to rate them based on the current project’s needs. (One person’s bug is another person’s feature.) Thus leave open for debate whether an effect is an upside or downside.

– Identifying relationships between claims. The ability to understand the alternative, complementary, and contrasting ideas is key to enabling design. It’s particularly hard to do that at the level of a paper or a product–their nuances make it hard to compare them in a meaningful way. It’s not easy to do so with claims, but at least it seems possible. Visionaries like Otlet and Nelson recommend letting people identify relationships between claims-like chunks of knowledge. At the heart of Wahid’s thesis was the notion of claims relationships. Mathematical models can refine and quantify the relationships to highlight them to designers (e.g., Chewar’s approach to index based on critical parameters then use experimental results or designer surveys to rate the claims). There seems to be progress toward this goal.

– Identifying quality claims among a sea of mediocrity. Since claims are used in brainstorming, there necessarily will be a great many claims of questionable quality: claims that are incomplete, ill-conceived, too specific to a problem/domain (who cares if the claim is specific to some other domain; perhaps quality experienced designers can understand cross-domain relevance but most can’t), too general to be of use (the “fortune cookie” problem; the claim reads like a fortune cookie meant to appeal to everyone but instead being of little use). One solution: use the “god of claims” approach to identify claims of reasonable quality. Another solution: let the masses decide through votes or other recommendations.

– Making claims more accessible. Claims are pretty accessible compared to papers, patterns, and program review–but it’s still a daunting task for designers to look through long lists of claims toward finding the right ideas. One approach to mitigate this problem is to use pictures as a bridge to each claim; that is, to represent each claim with an easy-to-interpret picture (as in my Wahid/Branham work). This allows designers to process large numbers of claims quickly, connecting the ideas to their own problems. Another idea is to limit the number of claims and focus on high-quality ones (as in Francois’ ongoing MS thesis work). This enables the designer to focus on a smaller number of ideas; a more pattern-like approach, for better or worse.

– Automatic extraction of claims from databases. The databases could include professional papers, chat/meeting logs, blogs, case studies, scenario libraries, or other such repositories. If done with high quality, it would cut down on the high costs (and low immediate benefits) of generating claims sets. Numerous people have pursued or seem to be pursuing this idea: Janet Burge is working on this as the focus of her NSF CAREER grant to use speech recognition to decompose meeting transcripts; Ray McCall expressed interest in doing it; Jintae Lee seems to have done some of this in business settings.

This is probably a post that I’ll go back and edit. Emerging from these ideas are categories for issues claims (and design rationale) need to address to be more effective: creation, quality assurance, use/reuse. But there’s lots of other work that needs to be done in this area.

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