Migratory Words

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Building effective search interfaces is hard, particularly when the goal is to support exploratory search rather than precision-oriented fact finding that the major search engines excel at. The challenge is to support a complex, evolving, information-rich task in a generalizable, understandable, and manageable way. We have some good ideas about how to make various components of information exploration interfaces; Marti Hearst’s book, for example, details much of the science and engineering that goes into good design for information seeking interfaces. None the less, the challenge of how to put these techniques into usable, effective and engaging interfaces that make it possible to do serious information seeking, remains.

A team of students at SIMS took a step in this direction with their Masters’ Thesis project called Migratory Words. The system allows people to search and browse a collection of news articles. Results are presented in a combination of visualizations and text lists that highlight terms, documents, and collections. The use terms and phrases that represent the ideas latent in the documents is a particularly welcome addition to traditional document-focused interfaces.

The system that the students built is a first step, and has many limitations. I hope that they continue developing these ideas beyond the initial effort required for the thesis project. Their design joins a growing body of innovative work that is pushing the envelope on the possibilities for web-based exploratory search UIs. Other recent examples include NextBio and  Paper.li. NextBio is a tool for exploring medical data and metadata available from Medline and related collections; paper.li applies the newspaper metaphor (something I approve of) to the display of search results from Twitter.

I hope that these examples encourage others to explore, to design, and to evaluate so that we can develop a rich repertoire of designs and experience that will, in the long run, make rich information exploration interfaces a part of our everyday tool set.

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