Did you ever see the movie Singles? It came out in the early 90s, shortly before the alternative scene really blew up and I dyed [part of] my hair blue and thought seriously about piercings. Singles was a part of the growth of the alternative movement. In the movie, there is a moment when one character says to another “Do you ever think about traffic? Because I do. All the time.” I spent quite a bit of time obsessing over that line, about what it meant, and, more deeply, what it signaled.
I still think about that line. As I drove toward the turnoff to my mom’s street during our 4th of July vacation, I saw what looked like the turn lane for her street, but it was actually an intersection- less left- turning split immediately preceding the real left turn lane for her street. It threw me off every time, and I kept remembering that romantic moment in Singles when the two characters were getting to know each other’s quirks, and the man was talking about traffic. And it was okay, even cool, to be quirky and think or talk about traffic, even during a romantic moment.
I don’t think about traffic often. But I am no less quirky. Lately, I tend to think about interfaces. Before my first brush with NLP (Natural Language Processing), I thought quite a bit about alternatives to e-mail. Since I discovered the world of text analytics, I have been thinking quite a bit about ways to integrate the knowledge across different fields about methods for text analysis and the needs of quantitative and qualitative researchers. I want to think outside of the sentiment box, because I believe that sentiment analysis does not fully address the underlying richness of textual data. I want to find a way to give researchers what they need, not what they think they want. Recently, my thinking on this topic has flipped. Instead of thinking from the data end, or the analytic possibilities end, or about what programs already exist and what they do, I have started to think about interfaces. This feels like a real epiphany. Once we think about the problem from an interface, or user experience perspective, we can better utilize existing technology and harness user expectations.
Have you read the new Imagine book about how creativity works? I believe that this strategy is the natural step after spending time zoning out on the web, thinking, or not thinking, about research. The more time you cruise, the better feel you develop for what works and what doesn’t, the more you learn what to expect. Interfaces are simply the masks we put on datasets of all sorts. The data could be the world wide web as a whole, results from a site or time period, a database of merchandise, or even a set of open ended survey responses. The goal is to streamline the searching interface and then make it available for use on any number of datasets. We use NLP every day when we search the internet, or shop. We understand it intuitively. Why don’t we extend that understanding to text analysis?
I find myself thinking about what this interface should look like and what I want this program to do.
Not traffic, not as romantic. But still quirky and all-encompassing.