[FoRK] [NYT] on UW's KFTF and StuffIveSeen

Rohit Khare khare at alumni.caltech.edu
Thu Jan 22 10:52:43 PST 2004

There is a *lot* more here than meets the eye. Flatland isn't a very 
appealing metaphor to me, btw. How about, oh, I don't know, 
bookshelves? Mine are pretty random, and yet they still work *because 
the spines make search easy*... oh well, Rohit


Now Where Was I? New Ways to Revisit Web Sites

Published: January 22, 2004

ELECTRONIC bookmarks were supposed to answer the problem of Web-site 
recall. If you came across a site that you expected to need in the 
future, you simply added it to your Favorites list in Internet Explorer 
for safekeeping. With an application that simple, what's not to like?

Quite a bit, as it turns out. Researchers are finding that despite the 
early promise of bookmarks, people seem to be abandoning them.

William Jones, a research associate professor at the Information School 
at the University of Washington, says that bookmark lists have become 
"information closets" that hold a jumble of sites people never return 
to. Only hyperorganized users sort sites into folders, clean out dead 
links or click on inscrutable addresses to figure out why they were 
bookmarked in the first place.

"We say 'Oh my god!' and we close the door," Dr. Jones said. "We don't 
like to think that we are that disorganized."

He and Harry Bruce, an associate professor at the university, are 
leading a project called Keeping Found Things Found that they say grew 
out of frustrations voiced by Internet users. People would tell him 
that they often had to repeat a search for information that they had 
found once but were unable to locate again, Mr. Bruce said.

The project, which is being paid for by a three-year $378,000 grant 
from the National Science Foundation, is intended to shed light on the 
best tools for the job.

So far, observation of a few dozen people in their work environments 
has revealed a hodgepodge of approaches to organizing pages, and 
bookmarking them is not at the top of the list.

Instead, some people try to keep track of Web sites by sending 
themselves an e-mail message with the link and a note of why it might 
be useful. Others print pages or use sticky notes. Some people, the 
researchers found, make no attempt to save a page, counting on being 
able to find it again with a search engine.

When the researchers looked at how people returned to sites they had 
visited before, they discovered that context made all the difference. 
When subjects in their study had the chance to describe a site in their 
own words and were given the description six months later, they had 
little trouble finding the site again. Yet in today's typical bookmark 
applications, users cannot annotate sites they save.

To allow more room for context, the Washington team created Add to 
Favorites 2, a software prototype that enhances the Favorites feature 
in Internet Explorer. The prototype includes a box that enables people 
to enter a description of a site they want to bookmark. It also lets 
them e-mail the link and save it within a document folder. Over the 
next few months, the software will be tested by a small group of 
Internet users at the University of Washington.

Early tests by Dr. Jones and a few members of his research team have 
been discouraging, he said. People who had abandoned using Favorites 
were not compelled to return to using them despite the enhancements. 
Nonetheless, he said, the software may be worthwhile for those who do 
use bookmarks.

Meanwhile, the researchers have turned some of their attention to the 
AutoComplete feature that comes with today's Web browsers. With 
AutoComplete, typing a few characters of a Web address triggers 
software that recalls the complete address of a site previously visited 
that starts with the same characters, and automatically enters it. 
"It's a very crude tool that deserves more attention," Dr. Jones said.

But what if the user has only a vague memory of a site, without any 
sense of what its address might be? And how could software remind 
people that a site they once saw might be useful to them now?

Ben Bederson, director of the Human-Computer Interaction Lab at the 
University of Maryland, agrees that bookmarks "are pretty hopeless." 
The concept is flawed, he said, "because it assumes in advance that 
this is a page that you want to revisit, and you don't always know 

Software being tested at Microsoft Research takes a stab at solving 
that problem. Susan Dumais, a senior researcher with Microsoft who is 
also part of the University of Washington team, has helped develop a 
program called Stuff I've Seen. The software is designed to help people 
recall documents like e-mail messages and Web sites through a unified 
search interface. Keyword search results include related Web sites 
already visited, regardless of whether they have been bookmarked.

About 1,500 Microsoft employees are now testing versions of the 
software. It is not designed to be a commercial product, but its 
features could show up in the next release of Microsoft's operating 
system, code-named Longhorn and due out in late 2004 or 2005. "Many of 
the lessons learned from Stuff I've Seen will be incorporated into 
Longhorn," Dr. Dumais said.

Good search engines may eliminate the need for bookmarks or home-made 
filing systems altogether, according to these researchers. Both Dr. 
Dumais and Dr. Bederson envision living in "flatland," where folder 
hierarchies will be a thing of the past. Dr. Bederson, for example, has 
created software called NoteLens (available as a free download at 
www.windsorinterfaces.com) that enables people to retrieve old notes 
through rapid-fire keyword searches rather than by browsing through 
folders. He said the technology could be adapted for the recall of Web 

Whatever the answer, people want to feel that they are in control of 
their information world, Dr. Bruce said. Even as search engines 
improve, he expects that people will still need to rely on what he 
calls interventions that trigger memories of a Web page seen before. 
"The challenge," he said, "is getting back to it." 

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