A digital collection has a rich-prospect interface when some meaningful representation of every item in the collection is an intrinsic part of the interface used to access the collection (Ruecker 2003). Rich-prospect interfaces can provide the people using them to access a collection with singular advantages in two areas: an increase in the kinds and amount of information that is visible, and new opportunities for action that derive from tools that are associated with the display. These advantages are not available to people using conventional retrieval interfaces, which focus instead on the precise recall of specified search targets.
For example, a retrieval interface to a collection of Victorian poetry might consist of a set of search boxes where the user can specify items such as the title of the poem, the author, or the date of publication. A rich-prospect interface to the same collection might include a similar set of search boxes, but would also show an organized display of every item in the collection. If the collection were to contain, for example, 10,000 poems, then the interface would list all 10,000 poems, perhaps by title, or by a combination of author and keyword, or by some other choice of descriptor that was meaningful.
In order to make the rich-prospect display as useful as possible, strategies might also be adopted to allow the user to restructure the items according to some other criteria, such as publishing house, anthology titles, or geographic locations of authors at the time of publication. In order to make 10,000 titles manageable, visual communication design principles might be brought into play, whether through the application of microtext and fisheye cursors, scrolling and zoomable panoramas, or design incorporating a virtual third dimension.
The increase in the amount of information immediately present and visible to the user of a rich-prospect interface is through the meaningful representation of every item in the collection. This visible information allows the user to readily perceive what is present and how it has been conceived and identified by the people who created the collection. The increase in the kinds of information stems from the organization of the meaningful representations, whether through sorting, searching, subsetting, or otherwise structuring the material in the display.
The opportunities provided by the interface are related to the capacities of the various tools for organizing the representations. Where an appropriate set of rich-prospect tools have been made available, some of the research activities related to collection browsing can be carried out by researchers at the level of the interface, before any of the documents in the collection are accessed. This is true even in cases where the representation of items is not meaningful (Pirolli et al. 1996).
However, not all information organization strategies are equally productive. For example, many systems will categorize writers alphabetically by last name. Unfortunately, not many projects require academics to write about all the writers whose last names began with the letter "C." Alphabetical organization does facilitate the retrieval of documents associated with a known author, but prohibits browsing through authors who are related by genre, period, thematic similarity, intertextuality and so on. A better strategy for identifying authors associated in some meaningful dimension is to provide a method for the user to dynamically reorganize the display according to the metric of interest.
It is also possible, however, to identify structuring techniques that are more sophisticated, in the sense that they combine more than one metric into a display that allows simultaneous insight into multiple aspects of the information. Through an examination of the organizational principles behind a highly successful visual information design employing rich prospect -- Mendeleyev's periodic table of the elements -- this paper provides a set of principles for designers interested in creating tools for use in association with rich-prospect interfaces. These principles emphasize the value of simultaneous structure across distinct aspects of the available information, and include: compression and inclusion, the establishment of a matrix for pattern-finding, and the creation of potentially productive negative spaces. Interface strategies based on Mendeleyevian principles should be particularly useful for accessing large bodies of digital documents such as those often found in the humanities, maximizing the pre-retrieval research potential of the collection.
Rich-prospect interfaces, computer-human interaction, interface design, periodic table
1. Pirolli, P., Schank, P., Hearst, M., and Diehl, C. (1996). Scatter/ Gather Browsing Communicates the Topic Structure of a Very Large Text Collection. Proceedings of the SIGCHI conference on Human factors in computing systems: common ground. pp. 213-220. http://doi.acm.org/10.1145/238386.238489
2. Ruecker, Stan. (2003). Affordances of Prospect for Academic Users of Interpretively-tagged Text Collections. Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation. University of Alberta, Edmonton.
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