Webscapes in the works

One thing is for sure about the Web: the way we use it will change.

Microsoft, for one, has a think tank studying future Web interfaces that the software kingpin may someday adopt. Researchers shared some of their studies at the recent Web99 Design and Development conference in the US.

"You need multiple options for searching the Web," says Mary Czerwinski, a Microsoft researcher. "Some people like linear text and some like moving around in 3D; we need to support both."

Microsoft's research effort covers both original interface design and analysis of offerings, which the team tests on users.

Scaling the data mountain

One of Microsoft's alternative interfaces uses the "Data Mountain" metaphor. The interface presents Web pages as icons that you drag onto a data map. You can group pages in any way.

The Data Mountain provides a graphical landscape with distinct landmarks, to help you remember where you store your documents. Audio feedback reinforces the sensation and the direction of your movement, by coming from either the left or right speaker as appropriate, coming toward you as you move to the bottom, and away as you move up. When you drag a new page onto the mountain, other pages automatically move out of the way.

The research team studied a similar approach used in a 3D Web browser called Perspecta, developed by former researchers at the MIT Media Lab, Czerwinski says. Perspecta was designed to make it easier to access Web-based data, and offers "a nice global overview," she says.

Czerwinski demonstrated a Perspecta application used by a video rental company, which organised its titles graphically. On the site, when you click the "Suspense" category, a list of suspense movies pops up.

"But some of the headings were unclear, with movies listed under multiple categories," Czerwinski says. "It was really nice be able to click and quickly see an abstract of a movie, but some users also got so deep (into the database) they got lost." Web developers have yet to strike the right balance of global and local anchor points that give users a reference frame as they navigate a site, she says.

Considering cultures

Content categories are also a problem for many Web sites, notes Kirsten Risden, a Web-usability engineer at Microsoft. Using examples from an earlier version of the Microsoft Network site, Risden showed that categories like Interests and Lifestyle are too generic because "it means everything and nothing."

Cultural issues must also be considered, Czerwinski notes. The Nintendo generation is much more apt to want to use a 3D interface, she says. "In fact, they feel very restricted by the common 'click back and forth' interfaces. They want to spin around and fly through," Czerwinski says.

While some users like being able to move a mouse and "fly through" 3D databases, they are in danger of developing repetitive stress injury from all the arm movement. "Users like new Web visualisations, and at Microsoft we are moving to them," Czerwinski says. "We just have to be careful we aren't throwing too much at them and make sure we are addressing problems users really have."

Researchers are also concerned with keeping software lightweight and easy to use, she says. That means they must study spatial abilities across gender and age, and address accessibility issues, including ease of use for the handicapped.

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