User Interfaces for Event Streams (by )

Reading Phil Gyford's post about the reasoning behind his Todays Guardian app reminded me of an old interest of mine - the design of user interfaces that show people streams of events.

I hate the fact that I have several systems that have reason to throw notifications at me:

  1. Incoming email (with multiple accounts)
  2. Twitter (with multiple accounts)
  3. RSS feeds I follow
  4. Voicemails/SMSes
  5. Notification of server failures and other such technical problems
  6. Incomng phonecalls, Skype calls, etc
  7. IMs and DMs in IRC, and people mentioning my name in IRC channels
  8. People talking in channels I'm following in IRC
  9. Scheduled alarms (time to stop working and eat!)
  10. Batch processes have finished (I often start a long compilation/test sequence going then browse the Web for five minutes while it runs - then get distracted and come back twenty minutes later)

Many of these event sources are capable of producing events of different levels of urgency, too. It's really quite complex. Some things shout in my face (incoming skype messages cause a huge window to pop up over what I'm doing, for example) while some need to be manually checked (such as email; I get too much spam for the "you've got mail!" noise to mean much to me), and this has little correlation with the relative importance of them.

Obviously, the first thing to do is to have some standard mechanism in the user interface system for notifying me of events. Growl is a start, but it's focussed on immediate notifications, rather than handling a large backlog of events. What I want is something like my email inbox, that has a searchable, scrollable, history, and notifies me when new events come up. But I also want richer metadata than Growl has; I want all IMs, emails, and whatnot from the same person to be tied to that 'source' of events, so I can filter them into groups. I want to have Personal, Work, and Systems events, and to have Personal deprioritised during working and Work deprioritised during personal time. And so on.

The BlackBerry OS goes someway towards this with its integrated Messages system. Any app can register to put messages into the message stream, so when I get emails, BlackBerry IMs, notifications of new versions of software being available, etc. they all appear in the same time-stream and I get a 'new message' notification. I want something similar on my desktop, but with much more advanced filtering and display capabilities. My design for 'user agent' entities in ARGON involves using a standard "send an object to an entity protocol" for all email/IM/notification activities - the same protocol that is used to send print jobs to a printer, files to a backup system or removal storage device, orders to an automated process, and so on; it's roughly the equivalent of "drag and drop" in a desktop GUI. Incoming objects from 'elsewhere' are then combined inside the UA with internal events such as calendar alarms and situations the user agent might poll for, such as things appearing in RSS feeds, into a centralised event stream, by the simple process of translating all internal events into incoming objects like any other; but actually designing a user interface for displaying that is something I look forward to doing...

Phil's analysis of the newspapers interests me, because it's a very similar challenge. You have a stream of events, and the user may want to skim over them to see what's relevant then zoom into particular ones. How do you present that, and how do you help the user deal with an inundation of events, by applying heuristics to guess the priority of them and suitably de-emphasising or hiding irrelevant events, or making important events intrude on their concentration with an alarm? Priority is mode-dependent, too; if you're in an idle moment, then activity in your interest/fun RSS feeds should push out work stuff entirely - apart from important interruptions. And some events will demand my attention to respond to them, in which case they should offer me links to the tools I need to do that - a notification of a problem on a server, ideally, should carry a nice button that will open me up a terminal window with an ssh connection to that server. But some things might require my attention, but I can't give it yet - so I need to defer the task, so it doesn't then clutter my inbox, yet in such a way that it reappears when all higher-priority tasks are done. There are elements of workflow, where events need an initial "triage" to be categorised into "read-and-understood, do now, do later today, do whenever" and maybe prioritised, then later, deferred tasks need to be revisited.

Also, some event streams are shared. Perhaps an event should be handled by the first member of a team to be free, such as a shared office phone ringing, or a bug to be fixed or feature added to a software product. There needs to be some system for shared event pools, with support for events to be "claimed" from the pool by a person, or put back. Perhaps personal event systems should be able to contain proxy objects that wrap events stored in a shared pool somewhere, so they can be managed centrally as well as appearing in personal event streams along with events from other sources. Standard protocols would be required to manage this.

Looking at the relatively crude support for this kind of thing in even the supposedly integrated and smart combined email/calendar apps, I think there's a lot of fun research to be done!

1 Comment

  • By Tom, Wed 16th Jun 2010 @ 3:15 am

    People think they're so clever to invent things like Twitter.. grrrrrr. First it was the phone and mail.. then voicemail (pure evil). Then email.. then IRC, ICQ, Skype, XMPP, RSS, SMS, Twitter and Facebook.

    I think there's a long way to go... I'm not holding my breath. Maybe the answer is not to integrate all protocols into a seamless message queue system (thus enabling proliferation) but rather to phase out the superfluous protocols. I try to limit myself to email (and mail, xmpp, phone, voicemail when others insist). I just ditched RSS for lack of a good reader; doing the bookmarks-and-tabs thing instead 🙂

    Words to live by these days.... "Thanks to the greatly improved possibility of communication, we overrate its importance. Even stronger, we underrate the importance of isolation." -- E.W. Dijkstra, 2001

Other Links to this Post

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Leave a comment

WordPress Themes

Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 UK: England & Wales
Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 UK: England & Wales