Category Archives: authoring tools

Merits of the outlining metaphor

Dave Winer and Scott Rosenberg disagree that an outlining metaphor forces you into hierarchical thinking. This discussion is entirely coincident, but relevant, to yesterday’s discussion between Jon Udell and Don Thomas about how the tree metaphor works great for users who think a certain way (which turns out to be a lot of people).

In many cases, structured hierarchies are hard to understand and navigate, like a massive file system or a deeply nested taxonomy. But in the case of lightweight tools like outliners that let you do the nesting and grouping, it is a structure you have created yourself. In my own experience with this metaphor (mTuitive Authoring Environment), I’ve found that it is best to resist nesting greater than three levels deep, unless absolutely necessary. Similar to the “three-tap rule” in Palm’s early days (nothing is more than three taps away from the home screen), I’ve used this as a guideline in working with subject matter experts who use our tool, and it keeps the tree under control.

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Lightweight Authoring for Experts

Experts abound in healthcare. By definition, physicians themselves are all experts in their chosen field. And from these experts, super-experts and super-specialists emerge who become the authorities on very narrow yet important subjects. At mTuitive, it is our goal to make it easy for any subject matter expert to translate their knowledge into a working application that guides users through processes like data collection and decision-making.

Jon Udell produced an excellent screencast where he interviews Dr. Donald Thomas (Mentat Systems), an expert in running hospital emergency departments, on his use of the mTuitive Authoring Environment to create an xPert Application for ER Triage. This is a lengthy, thoughtful discussion on the use of lightweight tools to encode expert medical knowledge, and we all enjoyed it and appreciate Mr. Udell’s and Dr. Thomas’s take.

Jon and Don talk about how a tool needs to accomodate the way the user-author-developer thinks… In the case of our tool, folks who generally like outlining tools ease right into the tree metaphor. They talk about how a programming background is very helpful when getting started, but in our experience at mTuitive non-technical people have been quite successful creating applications as well. The simple, declarative method of creating dynamic logic and rules makes sense to a lot of people, maybe moreso to non-techies who aren’t thinking constantly about what’s happening under the hood. At the end of the day, though, there must be many different congnitive styles of presentation and interaction that would help different experts in different fields encode their hard-won knowledge as useful applications. As we move ahead in healthcare, we’ll be constantly layering and adjusting our tools to make the transition from the expert’s brain to the computer as smooth and pleasurable as possible.

Again, the screencast is worth the time.