Small is Beautiful

Today’s New York Times has an article by John Markoff called On a Small Screen, Just the Salient Stuff. It argues that the design constraints of the iPhone (and of mobile devices in general) lead to an improved user experience, since site designers do a better job of focusing on the information that users will find relevant.

Of course, on a blog entitled The Noisy Channel, I can’t help praising approaches that strive to improve the signal-to-noise ratio in information seeking applications. And I’m glad to see them quoting Ben Shneiderman, a colleague of mine at the University of Maryland who has spent much of his career focusing on HCIR issues.

Still, I think they could have taken the idea much further. Their discussion of more efficient or ergonomic use of real estate boils down to stripping extraneous content (a good idea, but hardly novel), and making sites vertically oriented (i.e., no horizontal scrolling). They don’t consider the question of what information is best to present in the limited space–which, in my mind, is the most important question to consider as we optimize interaction. Indeed, many of the questions raised by small screens also apply to other interfaces, such as voice.

Perhaps I am asking too much to expect them to call out the extreme inefficiency of ranked lists, compared to summarization-oriented approaches. Certainly the mobile space opens great opportunities for someone to get this right on the web.

By Daniel Tunkelang

High-Class Consultant.

2 replies on “Small is Beautiful”

You are right, Daniel. Higher the Vertical-To-Horizontal ratio of the content, more readable is the web content on smaller displays. As more and more Internet users go to mobile sets to seek and explore information on the web, it makes sense to bring quickly the exploratory search mechanisms to enable users to complete their quest in ‘small’ and meaningful steps.


Ram, great to see you here! I am increasingly optimistic that we (and not just my colleagues and I at Endeca) are building the critical mass to make the next generation of information seeking tools to support exploratory search.


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