IIT Institute of Design

Limelight

What can others learn from the origins of, thinking behind, and design of your technique or tool?: 

Limelight is a search interface for avid searchers—users who are in an open-ended, exploratory mode—and is designed to put context back into the search experience. In other words, how do search results connect to larger categories of meaning, and how might access to those categories help users discover more and search more effectively? Stated simply, Limelight makes search visual and more contextual.

Typical development starts with a set of user needs or functional requirements. This informs the “what” of the project but leave unaddressed the “how.” For the Limelight project, it was the use of Ted Nelson’s intertwingling theory that opened up new thinking about the "how" to reimagine directed search. Nelson’s philosophical proposal—that the web of meaning in which any piece of information might live is both dynamic and fluid—better fits the evolving nature of the internet and, as a result, how we expect to use information today. Limelight applies this theory to search by allowing users to explore and “intertwingle” categories via direct manipulation to expand or focus their searches.

Limelight’s interaction model is also influenced by the writings of Ben Shneiderman. His work on creativity support tools to encourage exploration, playfulness, surprise and discovery, coupled with his notions of “rapid incremental and reversible exploration that enables users to learn about distributions, gaps, and outliers” in search, sharpened the design of many of Limelight’s features. For Limelight’s designer, it was a short and informed leap from Shneiderman’s belief that search tools should help users actively construct knowledge in the process of defining and exploring a search, to using direct manipulation of search returns as an interaction model.

Applying theories such as these to development processes, then, can help teams actively drive towards a new perspective and bring fresh eyes to a challenge.

What insights, outcomes, information, etc. does your tool or technique have the capacity to generate or illuminate that might have been harder or impossible to arrive at using existing tools and techniques?: 

Limelight was designed to help avid searchers stuck in the throws of “I don’t know what I don’t know.” In this scenario, users need to construct a mental model of a topic—what is there to know about beekeeping?— so that they can navigate effectively within it. With current search engines, these users are forced into transactional guesswork: they use trial and error, essentially sampling information, until a pattern in returns reveals some kind of structure to the topic. Limelight creates a more intentional, meaningful dialog between the search engine and the user. It accomplishes this through both visualization (to reduce the manual labor of reading) and direct manipulation of categories (to make search algorithms more self-evident and search results more relevant).

How broadly can the results and outputs of your tool or technique be applied, and what are the limits of their validity and applicability?: 

Limelight’s interaction model is a useful front end to any expansive information database. Relevant applications include include parts catalogs, massive reference collections or knowledge management systems. Limelight adds value to systems such as these because it is optimized for the cognitive challenges posed by large search returns, fuzzy or open-ended search queries, or situations where understanding the context of a topic is as important as specific results. Limelight is less applicable for highly directed searches or for entertainment-driven browsing. These are two other common modes of search, and they merit different interfaces that are similarly task-optimized.

Please provide one or more concrete examples of how your tool or technique has positively affected the design and success of a product, service, or other experience.: 

Limelight is a works-like prototype that has not yet been put up against the likes of Google.

How might your tool or technique serve as the inspiration or starting point for future innovations?: 

Information and contextual relationships are not always as tidy as we’d like them to be. Nelson’s “intertwingularity” lets information have nuance. Embracing the complexity and nuance, rather than throwing it behind the screen and away from the user, can enrich understanding and help users create meaning and form important connections. Visual representations and direct manipulation are two points of leverage in this effort. They both help offset the cognitive load of text-based search. We believe that simple constructs such as these, combined with and informed by inspired theory, can transform the everyday tasks and tools of end users and help make their work just a little bit easier.