Placeholding Approaches

September 27, 2007 at 1:22 pm | Posted in Attention Management, interruption science, usability | Leave a comment

I wrote yesterday about the value of placeholding as an interruption management technology.  I believe placeholding is an important but rarely mentioned benefit of virtual and web/online desktops (see “Technology Review: Computer in the Cloud” and “Is the World Ready for a Web-Based Desktop?” ). 

An online desktop is using a desktop like the Windows desktop from within your browser.  A good list of online desktops is in the Wikipedia article on “web desktops”.  Usually web desktops are touted for their portability, manageability, and low cost, although they are not widely used.  I consider the web desktops out there today more like proof of concepts.  Obviously issues with performance, available software, and offline usage will be difficult hurdles to get over.  But the part I want to concentrate on is the ability that some of them have (Peepel for example) to have tabs on the side of the desktop that let the user immediately switch between desktops with all window placement, icons, and applications states intact.  And since these desktops are online, they are persistent as well, so they don’t disappear when you reboot.  Some virtual desktop applications provide similar functionality for installed desktop managers (Windows, OS X, BeOS, etc.) but I haven’t looked into them.

This minor-sounding bit of functionality (not even mentioned in the front-page highlights for Peepel) becomes quite powerful when you start using it.  You can name tabs for activities or states of mind (“house hunting”, “news”, “family budgeting”). When you’re working on house hunting and feel bored or stuck and want to distract yourself, you can click over to news and not be bothered by a desktop littered with your uncompleted task.  Then, when you get interrupted while following a thread of a few stories to answer a quick budgeting question, you can abandon the news and not worry about mentally jugging where you left everything.  It is like scratching an itch you didn’t know you had.

Adobe Acrobat has a very sophisticated system for bookmarking.  However its use case is more around the digital equivalent of placing those yellow sticky flags throughout the pages of a book for later reference rather than just keeping your place as you read through the document.  If it was meant for placeholding there would be only one special “place” bookmark, it would automatically store the current place in the doc when you close it or stay in one place for a long time or hit a simple “update placeholder” function key, and it would return to that point when you reopen the document.  Adobe Reader does not offer this functionality, although I believe it should.

I’ve heard Vista has some placeholding technology and plan to try it out soon.  This functionality requires active involvement from the developer of the application as well – it can’t be handled by the OS alone, so I expect mixed results.  Microsoft’s GroupBar research project allowed the user to save working state by taking snapshots of windows, groups, or the desktop restore their state later.  Also, the Microsoft TaskGallery research project is a fancy 3D approach to managing multiple desktop states.  I’m hoping that once users get a taste of placeholding, even in a few apps, it clicks and they become more vocal about requesting it.

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