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Making the computer work for us - the end of the Post-It?

dr mc schraefel of ECS is working with researchers at MIT on a project that aims to see computers being as easy to use as Post-It notes.

We are all used to seeing office spaces adorned with sticky notes of all colours and illegibility, but the research team, led by David Karger of MIT’s CSAIL (Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab) and by mc schraefel of the ECS Intelligence, Agents, Multimedia group, wondered why the kinds of information-scraps which the notes were used for were staying on paper rather than making it into a computer.

As part of a long-term interaction between ECS and CSAIL, schraefel has been working with different research groups at MIT over recent years. She has supervised students at MIT and students from her research group in ECS have also been able to visit MIT. Among her collaborations is this study of how people use and store information scraps, undertaken with David Karger and his research students.

Researchers in the group, including PhD students Michael Bernstein and Max Van Kleek, undertook a study of the use of Post-Its in an office environment and came up with a number of reasons why the actual physical object of a sticky note would be preferable in certain contexts to a computer program. But they found that one of the main reasons for using Post-Its was ease of use and time taken to make the note.

'Too often the computer gets in the way of what a person wants to do', says Karger. 'That’s right', says schraefel; 'we can quickly jot "meeting at 5 with Max tues" on a Post-It and the job is done; the reminder there.

'But to do this same task on a computer means opening a program, filling in a bunch of fields in a form, navigating an interface to pick calendar dates or time ranges to make it easy for the computer to parse what we mean,' she explained.

'The cost of these actions can be perceived to be too high for the value of the note. So we don’t bother; we lose stuff. We want to eliminate that kind of interaction. Kill the form. Design software to support how we work, rather than have us continue to work for the computer.'

As a result, the researchers developed List.It, a lightweight application to do two jobs: to let people capture notes on a computer as effortlessly as writing a sticky note, and to let the researchers get a better understanding of how people take notes.

List.It is a start at a lightweight interface to capture notes. The next extension of this approach will be to let people use List.It to say things like 'Remind me about this paper the next time I’m with my boss' and have the computer bring up that document at the right time and place. 'We want to explore this kind of lightweight interaction as a way to get the computer to provide more support for less effort', said schraefel.

List.it is available at http://groups.csail.mit.edu/haystack/listit/ (requires Firefox) and users are asked to send in their comments on the code after using it.

dr mc schraefel was recently awarded a Senior Research Fellowship by the Royal Academy of Engineering, sponsored by Microsoft Research, to improve the path to discovery for scientists.

Posted by Joyce Lewis on 03 Feb 2009.