GSoC 2012 – Journal! Revamp!

As announced (here) by great hacker and Open Source enthusiast Stefano Candori, I am currently mentoring him in a revamp of the Activity Journal (Stefano is its current maintainer) towards an application simply called Journal. In fact, it’s one of this year’s GSoC projects for the GNOME free software desktop project, and here’s the proposal.

Point of Departure and Motivation

The Activity Journal project was started back in October 2008 (then still under a different name) and since April 2009 has been widely covered and discussed beyond the project’s contributor base in tech news, in interviews, and on various portals and blogs across open source communities. Some examples of the rather extensive echo with a mostly positive twist are 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21 (with corrections in 22), 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28, 29, 30 (list sorted by time).

More than 1700 users have downloaded the 0.8.0 release of the Activity Journal from Launchpad (only one way of getting it) and many of these users bless us with a whole bunch of very useful feedback. By the way, some other ways of getting the current release of the Activity Journal are via Ubuntu apps dir, Debian packages, Fedora packages, and RPM).

Issues:

  • Overall Flexibility of Display. As the number of external application plugins and Zeitgeist dataproviders grows (and thereby also the number and variation of activities to be shown in the Activirty Journal), there is increasing need of flexibility in presentation form. For example, right now, all of the following must be fitted in the same fixed-sized boxes in the default ‘multiview’: document editing, picture use, chat activity, and music listening. And, well, ‘one size fits all’ is at least questionable here.
    As another example, consider calendar items: people use them to structure and orient within their days. So why not using them for re-orienting back to what users did during and around the events they stand for? However, again, calendar items and other such anchor elements for later return don’t really find their place in the Activity Journal’s current visualizations.
  • Presentation of Matches. The density of result presentation as to searching and filtering in the Activity Journal’s entries is limited, because of the predefined columns in multiview.
  • Personal Cues based on Analysis of User Action. Two of the three views currently provided don’t really allow to reflect, how much and in which patterns a user interacted with any of the information shown.
  • View Switching. Then again, switching among the views can be troublesome.

Consequently, in this project, beyond adding new features and types of activity footprints, we’re introducing a new way of showing the Activity Journal to its users.

Current Prototype

Some design considerations regarding the new Journal and a first prototype have recently been presented by Stefano. Below, a screenshot reproduced from there. The code is here.

The new Journal’s main view (early prototype): A two-column line-up of variably-sized Activity Bubbles on a timeline with continuous scrolling and a ‘logarithmic’ Timebar for navigation

The new Journal’s main view (early prototype): A two-column line-up of variably-sized Activity Bubbles on a timeline with continuous scrolling and a ‘logarithmic’ Timebar for navigation

We think that the above presentation form will allow us to clear the just discussed deficiencies of the former Activity Journal visualizations. They are taken up in the same order as they were brought up above:

  • Overall Flexibility of Display. With the two-column line-up of variably-sized activity bubbles, different information formats and user activity footprints can be differently presented.
  • Presentation of Matches. The above illustrated structure of mapping out user activities in time has the potential to be more densely populated with search and filter results than what’s currently possible, while we’re not losing the option to also present matches ‘in context’, so together with what happened around them.
    Still, it seems evident that we’ll need to also revamp something like the visual guidance as provided by the highlighting of days in the histogram slider of the current Activity Journal. This will help users to better orient to search results, which occurred further in the past.
  • Personal Cues based on Analysis of User Action. Intensity, quality, distribution, and patterns of information use, re-use and other user activities can be reflected in more differentiated ways.
  • View Switching. Finally, by heading for a combination of the advantages of the Activity Journal’s thumbs and multiple-days/columns views, the amount of views to be switched among will be reduced.
    However, for now, it remains undecided, how we’ll integrate the Activity Journal’s timeline view and its feature most often positively commented by users: bringing about a basis for time tracking support.

What’s Next?

While the implementation progress of Stefano’s GSoC project will be detailed on his blog, overview of relevant related material will be given on a GNOME wiki page about the revamp project. Here on this blog, I’ll accompany and flank Stefano’s work with related recaps, reflections, and thoughts about where the Journal’s journey might be taken. See you soon!

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