For a while I have been thinking of different ways of supporting finding information with tags that go beyond tag-clouds. There are three trends that are worth pointing out.
Faceted Browsing Metaphor The first is faceted browse interfaces. A good example of such an interface is wine.com. You can start browsing by picking any of the facets (price, region, type). For example, you might start by looking at wines from a particular region. Next, you decide to view by price. If you don’t like that option, you can change the facet, and start looking by type. You are in control every step of the way. In many ways, this could be the holy grail for tagging systems.
The metaphor that comes to mind for faceted browse is that of driving a car. You are in control, you decide when to turn right, or when to turn left, when to stop.
The metaphor that comes to mind is riding on a roller coaster. You are not completely in control of the experience. But its kind of fun, and you go along for the ride.
(Warning: take the navigation metaphors, like all metaphors, with a grain of salt.)
Given that clustered search results have never really caught on for web search, I had been skeptical whether clustering makes sense with tags. However, Flickr’s success with clustering makes me hopeful. del.icio.us has experimented with recommendations. I personally have not found them very useful, but I think thats due to certain interface issues.
Pivot Browsing Metaphor3) The third possibility is one that is native to tag based systems – and can be termed “pivot browsing“. I first heard the term in a presentation by the folks at dogear and it captures very well the nature of browsing on bookmarking systems. They describe it as “The ability to reorient the view by clicking on tags or user names, called pivot browsing, provides a lightweight mechanism to navigate the aggregated bookmark collection.”
When everything (tag, username, number of people who have bookmarked an item) is a link, you can use any of those links to look around you. You can change direction at any moment. Its a lightweight browsing mechanism, less structured and more freeform than browsing traditional hierarchies or even browsing faceted systems.
The metaphor that comes to mind for pivot browsing is walking in the forests or some other open space, stopping to smell the pine, taking a break. You get the lay of the land as you walk around. The point is not just the destination, the point is the journey itself (anyone who has wasted time looking around on one of the tagging system will know what I mean).
You could also consider plain ol’ search as another way of finding information. While search is important, I am not sure that how different tag search is from traditional search (at least from the user’s perspective). If you disagree, please tell me why I am wrong!
Tag-Clouds and other tag visualizations: How could we discuss finding information in tagging systems and not mention tag-clouds. Its the classic visualization related to tags (if anything related to tags could be called classic!). And it serves a very important purpose. It lets important stuff (as defined by frequently used) bubble to the top. While there are a lot of criticisms of tag-clouds, overall I kind of like them. However, I do believe that both from a cloud-content and visualization perspective, much can be done to improve them.
To stretch the already stretched navigation metaphor, viewing a tag-cloud is like getting the 30-thousand foot view from the airplane. You can see some of the important landmarks, but you need to get much closer to really understand the lay of the land.
I have spent some time thinking about facets and tags and will focus on that in a series of posts. I recently spoke to the CTO of RawSugar, Frank Smajda, a startup that I have been following for some time, and the first post will be on Raw Sugar’s approach to garnering facets from tags. (Please let me know if you see any other promising approaches of getting at facets from tags).