The other day, I got a Tweet from Ben Shneiderman at the University of Maryland about a human-computer interaction (HCI) innovation called Manylists. Ben is one of the world’s topmost HCI experts and one of my favorite Twitter leaders. Ben has an extremely high signal-to-noise ratio in his tweets, and if there was only one person I could follow on Twitter, he would be one of my top choices.
ManyLists is a product comparison tool that compares product features using spatial layouts with animated transitions. In simple terms, ManyLists arranges product features in a table in such a way that makes it easier to compare multiple products. The layout facilitates rapid scanning by the user, something I think we would all appreciate when buying a washing machine, a digital camera or junk food.
ManyLists looked similar to another tool developed in Ben’s lab, a medication reconciliation tool called Twinlist that I saw at a conference last year. Twinlist facilitates easy comparison/merging of a patient’s medication lists. For instance, a patient may be discharged from a hospital stay with a list of medications that may not be the same as she usually takes. Medication reconciliation, as it is typically done, is a relatively error-prone and effortful process. Twinlist does not fully automate the task, but provides clear advantages in helping the healthcare provider decide which medications to keep and which ones to drop.
Right after I got Ben’s tweet, I talked with Catherine Plaisant, an Associate Research Scientist who leads these projects. I was interested in the answers to two questions. The first one was what kind of HCI innovations Twinlist and ManyLists represented. Were they real breakthroughs or just incremental improvements? Catherine’s answer indicated that she thought they were somewhere in between. She pointed out that the applications really integrated several aspects of HCI done well: good graphic design, good choice of fonts and colors, and helpful animations to make computational processes and their decomposition explicit.
The second question was more difficult to answer: How was she going to get these innovations into real-world software applications in an efficient and effective way? All over the world, programmers are busy creating medication reconciliation software. If they knew about her work, they could maybe improve on what she had done, instead of reinventing the wheel. Catherine did not have a good answer for that. Yes, the code and designs are openly available on request (just email plaisant at cs.umd.edu). But, it is an unsolved mystery for how to get these innovations into the hands of developers better than we are able to today (which is to say, not very well).
A few years ago, I came across the Common User Interface, a project by Microsoft in Great Britain, that offers a fairly large set of well-designed and tested user interface components for electronic patient records. I have always dreamed of plugging a new patient record together from these components. That would be certainly less work than writing it from scratch!
– Titus Schleyer, DMD, PhD
Assoc. Professor and Director, Center for Dental Informatics