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IBM Cambridge Research Center

  Project: Visualizing Large-Scale Discussions

Researchers: Paul Moody
Project contact: Paul_Moody@us.ibm.com

A Collaborative User Experience Project:

Even after almost 20 years, discussion threads continue to be one of the best ways to hold a discussion with a large number participants. Threads of messages and replies often focus on a single topic, while forums of threads cover whole topic areas.

Current interfaces for threaded discussions are quite basic -- they provide minimal functionality and are often cumbersome to navigate. Users are generally presented with a purely textual interface, despite the graphical nature of the World Wide Web. As a result, much of the information that provides users with context and a better idea of what they want to read, is not available.

Providing discussion data in a meaningful and navigable manner could save people time and energy by helping them avoid threads that do not contain the information they seek. This project aims to identify the kinds of information we need to capture about discussions and the people who participate in them, and how to visualize the information in ways that would support large-scale discussions.

Here is a multi-level visualization of email threads that provides a fresh approach:

Figure 1. (below) Top level of the visualized large-scale discussion: At this top level, we visualize collections of threads as forums. This picture shows 189 threads, but it could display up to 300. New activity (based on your history with the site) is denoted by bright colors.
Figure 1. Top level of the visualized large-scale discussion

Figure 2. (below) Second level of the visualized large-scale discussion: Zooming in to level 2, we visualize personal interaction data for each thread in a forum. The data visualized in blue indicates how much of the thread you have read, how much is new, and how many others in the community have read what you've read. The data visualized in yellow indicates that you have posted a message to the thread. It also shows how many others also posted to the message that you posted to, how many read your email, and how many replied to your message. The data visualized in green indicates whether this thread has been identified as containing a problem or question, and if anyone has posted a solution or answer.
Figure 2. Second level of the visualized large-scale discussion

Figure 3. (below) Third level of the visualized large-scale discussion: Zooming in to level 3, we visualize a thread based on the hierarchical order of the messages. To read a posted message, the user just hovers over the circles in the layout. The open circles are aliases that allow the layout to spread and prevent clumping that could obscure some of the posted messages.
Figure 3. Third level of the visualized large-scale discussion