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Interaction Design Challenges

January 25, 2006

originally uploaded by arekd.

Interaction design challenges pervade every aspect of HCI design, and usually involve trade-offs that are fundamental to the very notion of what design (in general) is. Lately, I’ve been concerning myself with handling “information overload”.

The notion of information overload should be pretty well understood by most. It’s the state of helplessness and frustration caused by large amounts of data that one must sort through in order to find something useful.
(I won’t clog up Planet Informatics with my rantings, click below to continue reading)

Initially, computers organized information according to norms that people were familiar with. For instance, disk storage could be thought of as a place for storing digital text files, which in turn can be thought of as paper. So… why not make an organizational hierarchy similar to a filing cabinet? Heck, why don’t we even put a miniature “trashcan” on a “desktop”. I’m not knocking these ideas, I think they’re still great for most situations. However, anyone who uses computers as much as I do realizes that information is not limited to what we write, it also includes what we listen to, watch, interact with, revise, purchase, promote, protect, collaborate on, and ignore… periodically. All of these behaviors and manifestations of information will thwart most attempts at classical navigational hierarchies, especially in contexts where there are “mixed media” pieces of digital information, such as a diagram that was chatted about on a Thursday with a distant colleague using an instant messenger client.

Network systems often provide a degree of flexibility in organizing and storing information. I like the idea of defining things in terms of how they relate to each other. The brain works in a similar fashion, as the neurons and synapses that make up our representations of objects are really defining relationships between certain percepts. In other words, nearly everything we think about is connected somehow in our brain. This is why certain sights, sounds, and smells can trigger a whole barrage of related emotional and visual (as well as other sensory) memories.

I believe that the main challenge of human computer interaction design is going to be for the handling/navigation of large stores of information, and that this challenge will be met with network based relational information. This isn’t to say that other dimensions of interaction design won’t be met with resounding success to the benefit of mankind and so forth. I just think that right now, the opportunity for our age is to meet the challenge of “too much information”, and that the first couple of companies that I feel are doing this (Google, Flickr, Yahoo), are really delivering on the original promises of the world wide web and the information age.

However, the notion of networks and relational information is sort of obtuse, and difficult to resolve with many of our cultural understandings of design and aesthetics. In other words, there are very few people who could look “under the hood” of Google and say, “Gosh, that’s beautiful”.

In fact, there are only a few people I can seem to think of that are moving towards an aesthetic appreciation of this form of data. One such person is W. Bradford Paley, whose TextArc program won several design awards and accolades for its innovative structuring, organization, and interaction methods for network based textual data. Another individual focused in this field is our own Katy Börner, who is a world renowned network visualization expert. Check out the “infostethics” blog for more network visualzation projects.

Paley made several claims in his talk that he was merely borrowing techniques used by master painters to highlight, differentiate, or “texturize” information in his work, but I think that network visualizations also allow for dynamics in the context of movement and interaction that master painters could never dream of. Also… who says that network information must be visualized to be understood? Perhaps other senses can make these hidden relationships apparent.

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  1. Interesting thoughts, man. I think it’s kind of crazy that aesthetics are near the end of the list of consideration when thinking about solutions to info overload problem. It’s as if people completely forget that we first had this problem in the physical environment, which led to Architecture and Furniture Design…two fields infatuated with aesthetics.

  2. Thanks for the link to Katy’s site. I hadn’t seen it before.

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