Making Systems Come to Us

 
 
By Peter Coffee  |  Posted 2001-04-23 Email Print this article Print
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

When I begin a document with Microsoft Word 2000, menus like Edit and Format are mercifully short. Commands that I rarely use don't appear unless I summon them—or briefly wait for the full-length list.

When I begin a document with Microsoft Word 2000, menus like Edit and Format are mercifully short. Commands that I rarely use dont appear unless I summon them—or briefly wait for the full-length list. But if I dig down to an obscure command, it will be on the short list thereafter: The software smooths the path I choose to take.

This general notion—that systems should adapt to their users, instead of the other way around—is long overdue but finally becoming affordable in contexts that are far more strategic than word processing. Internet retail sites, for example, will reduce transaction overhead per customer if they can recognize and initiate patterns such as offering spare batteries along with new digital cameras. Content sites will be more useful (and therefore more used) if they tailor their presentation to time and day of the week: At 6 a.m. on a Monday, I want weather and traffic upfront, but at 9:50 p.m. on Thursday, I want to know if "ER" is a repeat.

"User modeling" sounds like a fearsome artificial intelligence task, but in most contexts, it doesnt need complex methods. "Cheap user modeling" techniques, so labeled by MIT Media Lab researcher (and Perl guru) Jon Orwant, include simple Markov chains (if Im in my car on a weekday morning, Ill probably next retrieve my e-mail from my office) and linear predictions (if I read Chapter 1 of a document on Monday and Chapter 2 on Tuesday, Ill probably access Chapter 3 on Wednesday).

Some people would rather make their own choices: On roads that I know well, I prefer a stick shift myself. But the route through cyber-space changes every day: Im ready for the convenience of putting my life in drive and worrying only about how fast I can take the curves.

 
 
 
 
Peter Coffee is Director of Platform Research at salesforce.com, where he serves as a liaison with the developer community to define the opportunity and clarify developers' technical requirements on the company's evolving Apex Platform. Peter previously spent 18 years with eWEEK (formerly PC Week), the national news magazine of enterprise technology practice, where he reviewed software development tools and methods and wrote regular columns on emerging technologies and professional community issues.Before he began writing full-time in 1989, Peter spent eleven years in technical and management positions at Exxon and The Aerospace Corporation, including management of the latter company's first desktop computing planning team and applied research in applications of artificial intelligence techniques. He holds an engineering degree from MIT and an MBA from Pepperdine University, he has held teaching appointments in computer science, business analytics and information systems management at Pepperdine, UCLA, and Chapman College.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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