THE DISAPPEARING DESKTOP. An interview with Jaime Teevan (Microsoft) and William Jones (Univ. Washington)


How often do you feel that computers and mobile devices are not helping you as they should (and could) in managing your personal information? What can research and new applications do to improve this situation? I’ve spoken about this with two experts: Jaime Teevan (Microsoft Research) and William Jones (University of Washington). William and
Jaime have edited the book ”Personal
Information Management
“, and William is the author of the book “Keeping
Found Things Found
” (see picture on the left). At CHI 2008, they are organizing a workshop
The Disappearing Desktop: Personal Information
Management 2008
. Let us learn from them about the present and future of personal information management:

To many, Personal Information Management (PIM) evokes images of applications in everyday use rather than research. What aspects of PIM will you be discussing in your workshop?

“You’re right – personal information management is definitely part of people’s everyday life. PIM research is intended to support the activities we, as individuals, perform to order our daily lives through the acquisition, organization, maintenance, retrieval, and sharing of information. Existing applications currently go a long way to helping people manage their personal information.  Digital storage is cheap and plentiful. Better search support makes it easy to pinpoint the information we need, even when it’s buried in vast databases of unrelated information. The ubiquity of computing and communications and the miniaturization of computing devices make it possible for us to take our information with us wherever we go.
But these new technologies also sometimes create problems. Information that was once kept only in paper form is now scattered in multiple versions among paper and digital copies and isolated in separate applications and devices around the world. Even a seemingly simple action like responding to an email request can cascade into a time-consuming, error-prone chore that requires integrating information from various distributed collections of paper and electronic documents, email, Web pages, and more. The result may be that we sometimes can’t find what we’re looking for, even when we’re sure it’s part of our own collection.
In an ideal world, everyone would always have the right information, in the right form, with the right context, right when they needed it.  Unfortunately, we do not live in an ideal world. The PIM workshop we are hosting at CHI looks at how people in the real world currently manage to store and process the massive amounts of information that overload their senses and their systems, and discuss how tools can help bring these real information interactions closer to the ideal.”

What are the major limitations of the current devices and tools used for PIM ?

“There are several important challenges facing tools and technologies that want to effectively support personal information management, including:

  • Fragmentation.  People’s personal information can lie scattered across different devices, accounts, and applications.  A person may work on several computers, use a PDA or full featured cell phone, have several email accounts, or work in several different physical locations.  This fragmentation can create problems finding information (people may need to look in several places before finding what they’re looking for, or even forget that they actually have relevant information in their possession), keeping information (disparate organizational systems, file types, and devices make it difficult to know where a new piece of information should go, or even if it has already been kept before), and organizing and maintaining information (fragmentation forces the separate organization and maintenance of several distinct information collections).
  • Privacy protection.  People seek to manage not only the information under their direct control, but also information about them that others can easily acquire or may have already.  The ease and cheapness with which personal information can be recorded, saved, and transmitted in digital form creates new problems of privacy protection that did not exist, or were much less severe, when information was kept in paper form only.  Better privacy protection is not just a matter of better laws or improved technologies of security. Better privacy protection also depends upon user interfaces that clearly communicate the implications of privacy preferences and organizations privacy policies.
  • Managing the transitions between personal and group information.  The study of personal information management cannot succeed by considering a person in isolation from the various groups in which that person works and lives.  The management of information by an individual and within a group are interrelated.  Privacy concerns in any group setting are matched by the mutual benefits that arise from the exchange and collaborative management of information.”

Could you give me a few examples of particularly interesting work that is being presented at your workshop?

“One interesting project that will be presented is TapGlance, by Dan Robbins. The project helps people interact with their personal information on a small mobile device by presenting information from many different sources in a unified way that also accounts for the user’s task and context.
Another project being presented that you may find interesting is Feldspar, by Duen Horng Chau, Brad Myers, and Andrew Faulring. Feldspar is a search system that makes it easy for people to specify queries using associations.  For example, queries like, "Find the folder containing the email
attachment from the person I met at the PIM workshop," are easy to express.
But in addition to research centered around building PIM tools, there is also  a lot of research presented and discussion around trying to better understand the challenges people face as they work with their personal information.  An example of the descriptive research presented at the workshop is an effort to analyze logs of people’s interactions with their information by Chernov et al.
We encourage the readers to take a look at the schedule and list of accepted papers to get more materials."

What sorts of new PIM applications do you imagine for the future, thanks to the research that is being discussed at your workshop?

“In the workshop we are discussing many different aspects of PIM, but one area of particular focus will be how people manage electronic personal information not on their desktop computer.  Many people now rely primarily on mobile computers. Others do not rely on a single device, but rather access, organize, and manage their personal information through any device that provides access the Web.  A rush of developments with mobile and Web-based computing is pulling the traditional digital desktop apart.  As this happens, we face new challenges and opportunities in personal information management, and we are discussing them at the workshop:

  • Mobile: Current mobile devices exceed the computing capacities of personal computers from only a few years back.  Mobile computing allows people to make productive use of those small scraps of time between meetings, in traffic, or during half-time breaks that might otherwise be lost, and permits the effective, immediate use of bursts of creative energy that are difficult to schedule or predict.  But PIM tools will also need to help keep mobile computing from encroaching on our lives.
  • Web based computing: The creation of personal Web content is becoming easier and easier.  Much of what we do – shopping, selling, socializing, and working – is mediated by the Web.  The Internet connects us to people, products, and information that enrich our lives.  But there are challenges to using the Internet to manage our personal information.  The small space we carve out on the Web can become its own self-affirming reality in which we "live" even to the neglect of our physical world. And the personal information we keep online poses a security risk.  Identity theft is a real concern, and information about us, even when incorrect, can live on forever resisting our attempts to control or correct it.  PIM tools of the future will need to support Web based computing while addressing these concerns.”

© 2008, Il Sole 24 Ore. Web report from CHI 2008.


  • Dario Melpignano |

    Quite relevant topic… in my personal experience by integrating a GTD-compliant tool (based upon the “getting things done” method) with delicious and having all my professional content online and readily available on my computer’s hard disk, properly indexed (spotlight on mac os), I have strongly enhanced my capability to recall things when needed.
    But apart from delicious, this approach has the limitation of being personal, without links to knowledge that can be shared with a group.

  • |

    THE DISAPPEARING DESKTOP. An interview with Jaime Teevan (Microsoft) and William Jones (Univ. Washington)

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