User Interaction with the Semantic Web
Academics and practitioners from the semantic web community are seeking the involvement
of usability professionals as they define the "next generation web." Recently,
workshops at various conferences have focused on user needs and user
Over the course of 2005-2007, I began collecting examples of current innovations related to
user interaction/design for the semantic web. This page serves as a reference for
usability/design practitioners as they explore the subject and consider the role of semantic web
opportunities and offerings in their work. Presentation
slides (pdf) are available from talks at the Usability Professionals' Association, June 2006, and Computer Human Interaction (ACM SIGCHI), May 2007.
Examples and interesting web sites are listed further on in this paper.
This paper includes:
The semantic web has been defined as "an extension of the current web in which information
is given well-defined meaning, better enabling computers and people to
work in cooperation" (Tim
Berners-Lee, James Hendler, Ora Lassila in Scientific American, 2001).
Is it time for the usability community to look further at the specifics of the semantic web?
Conversations with researchers, semantic practitioners, and government
officials over the last few years confirm that there is a very strong demand
for usability input and involvement in the development of the semantic web.
The tools for the "next generation web" are becoming available now and will be increasingly used
by web developers, so it is important for user-centered designers and usability
professionals to understand what is coming into greater use.
If we think of the challenges and limitations we have when designing currently to meet user
needs, then it appears that the semantic web is dangling some enticing carrots
in front of us:
- Greater user context available to make application/site behavior more user-centered
- More flexible and adaptive language parsing and "understanding" to make the conversation with the
computer more effective
- Better visualizations and representations of complex data and interactions
- Availability of agents that can manage routine background tasks and reduce the need for users
to hunt and search among thousands, millions, or billions of items of
information without adequate support
- Sharable ontologies and vocabularies, allowing all the applications and sites that a user sees to
speak a "similar language" and reducing the demand on the user to interpret
language when trying to complete a task that requires more than one site or
application at a time
- Logical inferencing that can help synthesize information from disparate sources,
compare and organize that information, then present it to the user in a more
seamless way, reducing the cognitive burden
While it entices us, it also challenges us to consider where and how "semantic enabling" user
interactions can facilitate increased usability of the web and software
applications. It challenges us to consider the risks and complications that
arise from these technologies, and the role we need to play as user advocates
and representatives in the ongoing development of these technologies. Some of
these challenges are explored in further detail in our 2004 paper: the
Usability Imperative Inherent in the Semantic Web.
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Where to focus? Interaction challenges for the Semantic Web
Below are some broad categories of challenges that need both
research and practice input from the usability community. A growing list of
challenges is being developed by the Semantic Web User Interaction (SWUI) mailing list community, and can be
found on the SWUI web site.
Capturing context in a simple, usable, yet rich way -- ideally, as
a by-product of other activities
- Facilitating the "Context Conversation" -- how simple can we make
it for applications to understand a user’s specific context?
Involving the user throughout analysis and design, as well as
- Refining user-centered methods to support design of richer
Navigation, views, and data interpretation:
- Focusing on the relationships (the lines) in visualizations,
representations, and queries
- Maintaining ontologies -- language evolution, collaboration, relationships, rules
Authority and permission:
- Interacting with agents -- defining your relationship with them,
answering their questions, communicating changes
- Avoiding "pestering" while maintaining oversight
- Understanding trust, privacy
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Questions for the usability community to consider
- What aspects of the semantic web
have an interface? Even if there is no interface, what are the interactions?
- How can we be sure our interactions with data capture/management tools are so easy that anyone can --
and would -- describe themselves and the associated context?
- How do users and technologies work
together to build the semantic connections? How are they expanded and enhanced
when users collaborate with each other electronically? How are old connections
- How will seeking and reasoning
applications be forgiving of differences in language and meaning, and be clear/respectful
of semantic ‘shades of gray’?
- How do users remain (and feel) in
control, when so much is going on ‘behind the curtain’?
- The more that applications are
built from shared, distributed components, how much harder is it to shape the overall
- What are the fundamental
implications of things like agents, reasoning engines, component technologies
and web services - building blocks for web-based applications and interfaces?
- How are user personas,
preferences, experiences and interests modeled? Once these connections are
built, then how are they changed as the user’s expectations and needs change?
- How can we create better-managed
semantic environments to help us avoid drowning in the ocean of metadata?
- How does a user’s interaction with
an application help filter out the myriad of possibilities, hone in on what is
relevant, and make sure that the interpretations being made in the background
are suitable to a particular situation that day, and not a situation faced last
week or last month?
- How much of this can be done
without requiring many hours of my time informing my machines/appliances of my
desires, circumstances and vocabulary preferences?
- What interactions are required so
that semantics can support online conversations and interactions? Can semantic
technologies enable person-to-person and group interaction, and make the idea
of online community more practical? What facilities are required to make that
How do we keep the language from becoming stale - or, put another
way, how do we maintain the semantic web?
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Workshops and resources
Mailing list for SWUI discussion: email@example.com. (list archive is available on the web)
Semantic Web User Interaction. The Third
International Workshop on Interaction Design and the Semantic Web, held in
conjunction with ISWC2006. Athens, GA, USA. November 6, 2006. http://swui.semanticweb.org/.
End User Semantic Interaction. The Second International
Workshop on Interaction Design and the Semantic Web, held in conjunction with
the 4th International Semantic Web Conference, Galway, Ireland. November 7,
Beyond the Click: Interaction Design and the Semantic Web.
The First International Workshop on Interaction Design and the Semantic Web,
held in conjunction with the World Wide Web Conference 2004, NY, NY. May 18,
User Aspects of the Semantic Web. Held in conjunction with
the 2nd Annual European Semantic Web Conference, Heraklion, Crete. May 29,
Promoting User Experience in the Semantic Web. Held in
conjunction with the Usability Professionals’ Association conference, June 16, 2005.
Montréal, Québec, Canada.
W3C Semantic Web activity area. The reference site for
current standards-setting work. http://www.w3.org/2001/sw/
Annual Semantic Web Challenge. Further information and
demonstrations may be drawn from this showcase of innovative applications,
sites and methodologies that illustrate the potential of the semantic web. http://challenge.semanticweb.org/.
Passin, Thomas. Explorer’s Guide to the Semantic Web.
Greenwich, CT: Manning Publications, 2004. Online reference: http://www.manning.com/passin.
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Examples and Applications
The following list of applications is not exhaustive or
definitive -- it was created to show a range of possibilities and issues for
consideration from a usability perspective. Not all the examples are strictly "semantic
web" applications, but they serve to illustrate interactions that are -- or could
be -- adopted by semantic web applications.
Browsing and faceted browsing
Visualizing faceted browsing
Searching and filtering
Using and sharing data/vocabulary
Attaching semantic metadata to content
Ontology editing, representation and visualization
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