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Personal Information Ecosystems and Implications for Design

Personal Information Ecosystems and Implications for Design



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Published by Manas Tungare

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Published by: Manas Tungare on Jan 12, 2009
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Personal Information Ecosystems and Implications forDesign
Manas Tungare, Pardha S. Pyla, Manuel P´erez-Qui˜nones, and Steve HarrisonDept. of Computer Science, Virginia Tech
manas, ppyla, perez, srh
Today, people use multiple devices to fulfill their infor-mation needs. However, designers design each device in-dividually, without accounting for the other devices thatusers may also use. In many cases, the applications on allthese devices are designed to be functional replicates of each other. We argue that this results in an over-relianceon data synchronization across devices, version controlnightmares, and increased burden of file management. Inthis paper, we present the idea of a
personal informationecosystem
, an analogyto biologicalecosystems, whichal-lows us to discuss the inter-relationships among these de-vicesto fulfilltheinformationneedsoftheuser. Thereis aneed for designers to design devices as part of a completeecosystem, not as independent devices that simply sharedata replicated across them. To help us understand thisdomain and to facilitate the dialogue and study of suchsystems, we presentthe terminology,classifications of theinterdependencies among different devices, and resultingimplications for design.
1 Introduction
The last few years have seen a massive proliferation of avariety of computing devices spread across a broad spec-trum of capabilities and form factors. Each class of thesedevices has features and affordances that makes it uniquefrom the others. Users, however, use multiple devices inconcert with one another, to accomplish their everydaycomputing tasks. Weiser’s vision [12] of embedding in-visible computation into the environment is now a tech-nological reality. However, the design of today’s user in-terfaces is still done on a device-by-device basis. Thereappears to be a need to design interfaces more globally tosupport the spanning of a user’s tasks across these multi-ple devices.Today’s dominantdesign trend is to thinkof mobile ap-plications as clones of desktop versions that run on mul-tiple platforms. Often, maintaining consistency acrossplatforms has been the prime focus of design. For ex-ample, Microsoft Windows Mobile (for mobile devices)is a scaled-downversion of desktop versions of MicrosoftWindows, with a similar
button and user interfacewidgets. Similarly, calendar, address book, and emailprograms have been ported from the desktop platform toPersonal Digital Assistants (PDAs) with only cosmeticchanges. Most of these applications provide a duplicationof functionality across devices because of what appearsto be the designer’s implicit assumption that a user wouldperform the same tasks equally on all devices. Even at auser interaction level, each device is often treated in iso-lation from other devices. For example, a user can setan alarm on their calendar software, and through syn-chronization, this alarm is often duplicated to a numberof devices (e.g. laptop computer, PDAs, cellphones, andiPods). Since none of these devices is aware of the oth-ers, the inevitable outcome is the (almost) simultaneousringing of all alarms at the appointed hour. Even morefrustrating is that the user has to, at times, turn off thealarms individually. This demonstrates a lack of consid-eration on the designer’s part for the users’ use of thesedevices as a synergistic whole.This approach of replicating similar functionalityacross platforms demands an explicit provision for eachdevice to be able to synchronize data with another. The1
need for such explicit synchronization mechanisms high-lights the fact that these devices were designed as dis-parate islands of information that need to be bridged to-gether to be used effectively. The synchronization soft-ware and an explicit synchronization procedure is a re-quirement for a new device to be integrated into a user’swork environment. This burdens users by requiring themto engage in
planful opportunism
[9]. It also taxes themwith extra efforts in keeping track of what files to copyand knowing which platform has the latest versions of their personal information. Further, this situation aggra-vates the existing problem of information overload andfragmentation [2,3].We argue that part of this problem is that the HCI com-munity lacks the appropriate terminology, concepts, andprinciples with which to study this problem of multipledevices. In this paper, we define this collection of devicesas an ecosystem and draw parallels with biological sys-tems as a way to understandthe devices that participate inthe ecosystem, the relationships among them, the type of user activities that the ecosystem supports, and the equi-librium that must be maintained. We argue that to designecosystems of multiple devices, designers must take theresponsibility of maintaining the ecosystem equilibriumwhen new devices are introduced.
2 Ecosystems
A biological ecosystem consists of organisms, the envi-ronment in which they reside, the interactions that theseorganismshaveamongthemselvesandwith theirenviron-ment, and the natural balance that must be maintained tokeep the ecosystem in equilibrium. In the following sec-tion, we define a
“personal information ecosystem”
anddraw parallels between a user’s information domain andbiological ecosystems.
2.1 Definition of a Personal InformationEcosystem
A ‘personal information ecosystem’ can be defined as
‘asystem of devices and applications that are present in theinformation environment of a user, that interact closelyand richly with one another, to help the user achieve thegoal of fulfilling his/her information needs.’
The follow-ing sections discuss the parallels between the two ecosys-tems in detail.In order to illustrate our idea of an ecosystem, considerthe exampleofthe populariPod+ iTunes
multi-platforminterface. TheiTunesapplicationsupportsmediamanage-ment, creation and editing of playlists, media playback,and other tasks through a desktop-sized multi-pane userinterface. The iPod has its own media-browsing interfaceon a 2.5-inch screen that can be operated using a touch-sensitive scroll-wheel and a few buttons. The two deviceswere designed to be used together, so much so that theiPod cannot be used effectively without iTunes. Thesetwo devices complement each others’ functionality, inter-act anddependuponeachother,andcollectivelyfulfilltheuser’s goal of listening to music or watching videos at thedesk or when mobile.In contrast, consider an example where the user’s de-vices do not form an ecosystem: users work on docu-ments on different devices, say, a work computer and ahome computer, but when moving files between the twodevices, they struggle to keep track of their files on bothdevices. In this process, they run the risk of overwrit-ing a newer version with an older one and are forced toperform additional steps when trying to orchestrate thismigration themselves. These two devices do not performas a synergistic whole; they place on the user the burdenof synchronization and version control.Comparisons between technological and biological en-tities have been drawn in the past. For example, Nardiand O’Day define an information ecology as
“a system of  people, practices, values, and technologies in a particu-lar local environment”
[8]. Their approach takes a moresocial view of the information ecology; ours focuses ona user’s multiple devices and how the interaction amongthose devices influences the user’s information manage-ment practices.
2.2 Organisms
In a biological ecosystem, there are two types of compo-nents:
(environmen-tal factors),bothofwhichareequallyimportanttothesur-vival and development of the ecosystem as a whole [11].While in the biological ecosystem the distinction is be-
tween living and non-living components, in our informa-tion ecosystem this demarcation is based on the compo-nent’s ability to transform or transmit information.
2.3 Information Flow Among Components
In a natural ecosystem, energyflows from one componentto another: chlorophyllous plants synthesize it from sun-light and other raw materials, while other biological enti-ties receive their share from plants, directly or indirectly,forming the food chain. In a device ecosystem, informa-tion can be considered the equivalent of energy. Somedevices are producers of information: they capture or cre-ateinformationfromtheuser(viainputperipherals)ortheenvironment (via sensors or external information sourcessuch as the Web). It is then passed on to devices whoseprimary function is to process it. Certain other devicesperform the role of consuming or disseminating informa-tion to satisfy the user’s needs, via output devices or byexporting it to entities outside the ecosystem.
2.4 Variety and Diversity
One of the key characteristics of a biological ecosystem isthediversityofspeciesfoundwithin. Similarly,apersonalinformation ecosystem can contain a rich assortment of devices, differing in many ways (e.g. form factor, con-nectivity).The diversity of components in a personal informationecosystem is with respect to the capabilities of the devicesto transformandtransmit information. For example, largeenvironmental displays can show status information (e.g.temperature,news),but donotallowanyinteraction. Lap-top computers, however, also can show this informationand, in addition, allow the user to create and transmit in-formation. Some devices are hardly noticeable and blendin with the environment to stay invisible from the humaneye (like micro-organisms). Described by Weiser in hisvision of UbiquitousComputing [12],these devices fulfilla very important role nevertheless.
2.5 Interdependencies
Various species in a natural ecosystem depend on eachother for various reasons: the flow of energy (or, analo-gously, information) among them is a key motivator. Inbiological systems, some of these relationships exhibitunique characteristics and are thus given special names,such as symbiosis, parasitism, and commensalism. Wedraw parallels between them and personal informationecosystems here.
2.5.1 Symbiosis 
Symbiosis is defined as a relation between two kinds of organisms in which one obtains food or similar benefitsfrom the other, while the latter benefits from this part-nership. Similarly, two or more devices may offer com-plementary functionality, and depend upon each other toperform their task well. Each brings to the table a uniquefeature that is not found in the other, which is the
raisond’ˆ etre
behindsymbiosis. For example, PDAs offer the ad-vantage of mobility, while desktops offer higher storage,processing power, and richer interaction paradigms. Us-ing both devices symbiotically increases the value of theuser’s information by making it available from multipleplaces.
2.5.2 Commensalism 
Commensalism is defined as a relation between two kindsof organisms in which one obtains food or other benefitsfrom the other, but neither damaging nor benefiting it [6].Likewise, as part of a device’s natural function, it mayprovide, or broadcast, information that other devices use.For example, calendaring programs such as Apple iCalcan publish a user’s calendar for use by external entities.RSS feeds are routinely generated by web applicationsto disseminate information. Both of these practices helpsupport other devices without hindering their own func-tionality; in the iCal example, the sharing of calendars istotally transparent to the user.
2.5.3 Parasitism 
Parasitism represents a partnership in which one kind of organism obtains food or other benefit from another, andharms the host organism in the process. A notable exam-ple of such a relationship was mentioned by Paul Dour-ish during his keynote speech at the 2
Latin AmericanConference on HCI, 2005: while at home, his Bluetooth-enabledphoneheadsetlocatedinhis car wouldanswerhis3

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