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Friday, 27 February 2009

Interfaces that enhance serendipity

John Hagel had a great tweet:

maps are powerful interfaces focusing on relationships, not objects - applies to people and ideas, not just places - enhances serendipity

This inspired me to think about interfaces. Serendipity doesn't happen in a vacuum. It requires a medium that conveys the flow of information, the diversity of views and the connections to the edge. The interface, in fact, is a vital point that potentially enhances or limits the extend of discovery. It is the difference between enhanced serendipity and random browsing the Web.

The serendipitous service of the moment is Twitter. Through the 'river of news' style of presenting thoughts, links, conversations etc, one can easily discover stuff that are outside their normal web of interest. The value of discovery, however, depends greatly on the people you follow. If you pick the right ones like John Hagel above, you will find your perspectives being extended in ways you have not thought before. The challenge is, of course, to pick those people and that is why we will recommendation services like ReTweetRank and Mr Tweet becoming more important.

One other interface I can think of that enhances serendipity is the calender view from events companies like upcoming.com. They enhance discovery of events, and in the process, makes physical connections between people. Such interfaces are great for maximising discovery of time based items.

The common thread running through the two interfaces is the diverse source of information and how they are being compressed for easy scanning.

-sources of information are diverse
-information is stripped down to its bare minimum
-display is compact with little wastage of space
-format of display is in time format, either zoom in as in minutes updates to twitter or zoom out as in monthly displays in calender

Using these principle ( I am sure there are many more), we can design for better interfaces that enhances serendipity. Conversely, interfaces that do not do so are limited in discovery. Consider the disqus interface below: (i) information is not compresses with too much space that hinders scanning, (ii) no way to discover comments made on other blogs by the same commentor.

In summary, interfaces are a great place to uncover new ideas that may form the basis of different products/services. What other great interfaces have you seen that maximises serendipity?

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