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Personal Information Spaces   (2:35 pm)  

At breakfast on Saturday James, Tom and I talked about Tom’s latest thoughts on the personal infocloud. During our conversation, this diagram popped into my head. (Actually, it was the product of a blend – Tom’s thoughts on personal information combined with a diagram I’d been thinking about to describe holistic user experiences.)

Diagram describing the relationship between personal information spaces and user behaviors.

Some definitions:

  • Personal Information Space: This is any space – virtual, cognitive, or physical – where people store information. Examples: long-term memory, personal digital assistants, books, Web sites, cell phones, napkins, wallets, etc.
  • Information relations: There are inherent relations between piece of information. These relations can be internal to one information space or across spaces. There are two kinds of relationships between distinct pieces of information: redundant and related. My sister’s phone number and her address are distinct pieces of information but they are related. My sister’s phone number, however, is repeated across several information spaces, making it redundant: it’s is stored in my head, in My Yahoo! address book, and in my cell phone. Another example of redundant information: the songs in iTunes and the songs on your iPod. These are two instances of the same information.
  • Overlapping information spaces: The proliferation of wireless devices, however, permits users to access the same information space from different devices. Example: Sarah’s new Treo 650 can check the email on her company’s Exchange server. The same email is available on the computer and on the Treo. Another example: networked audio devices permit access to your music library without creating a redundant copy of the library.
  • Activities and tasks: A simple way of breaking down user behaviors. An activity (buying a car) is a collection of related tasks (research, test drive, financing). I’ve represented the activity as a circle because most activities are iterative or repetitive. It’s also meant to show that activities, rather than having a beginning and an ending, have an inside and an outside.
  • External source of information: In performing tasks, users encounter many sources of information. What makes the source external is that it is not personalized to the user. Amazon.com is mostly an external source of information, but when a book gets added to the user’s wishlist, it becomes part of a personal information space. People (remember them?) are also excellent external sources of information.
  • User interface: Information spaces are bounded by user interfaces: the means for accessing the information.

With this model, the relationship between user behaviors and information spaces is clear. As users perform tasks, information is shuffled back and forth between the user and his personal information spaces. The personal information spaces swell with new information when external sources supply it. We interact with external sources during tasks.

As a goal, we want our personal information spaces to be as few in number as possible. The more we can get our spaces to overlap, the more we can reduce redundancy and therefore inaccuracy.

What the metaphor hides:

  • Models for interacting with information spaces.
  • How information changes as it moves inside information spaces from external sources.
  • “Near-personal” information spaces, whereby users have some control over the content, like an intranet.

Possible future thinking:

  • Gestalt between the task and the information required to perform the task and the information coming out of the task.
  • The value of non-overlapping information spaces. When is redundancy a good thing? When does information demand different models of access?
  • What do overlapping activities look like? Do activities share tasks and information spaces?
  • Can information spaces sit inside and outside the activity?
  • ACTIVITY IS A CONTAINER metaphor. What is the ontology?


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