One confusing aspect of the ARIS Notebook for newcomers

I have suspected a fundamental problem with newcomers grokking the ARIS Notebook for some time, but it was only during a workshop at the UNM College of Nursing this summer that a participant finally helped me put my thumb on it. It’s a great example of a design that makes perfect sense to you because you were there since the beginning but is rather opaque to newcomers. My hope is that this short piece can both start a discussion about a better design for the Notebook, and help those who are confused by it currently. Once you get it, it’s not really so bad – really.

This post isn’t a comprehensive criticism of the Notebook, just a look at one big reason newcomers are having trouble.

How the Notebook works in ARIS

You have a notebook. That notebook contains notes. Each note is a container for possibly multiple pieces of media (text, images, video) and has optional metadata that can be set (location, shared to a global notebook, shared to other players’ maps).

Here’s a keynote file that overviews the model.
Here’s my blog post outlining the notebook and its use.

notebook data model.001

The major confusion that I think I finally put my finger on comes from our use of the word “note”. It has a technical meaning in ARIS as described above, but there is also a more generic version already in peoples’ heads. This generic term is typified by a note you might leave on the fridge for someone. It reads –text– heavily, and certainly does not make one think of a container that holds many pieces of media. Would you say “I have a lot of notes in my note” to refer to a “note” that contains several “text” files? This also comes up when people want to attach a note (i.e. bit of text) to a photo they have taken. Our use of the word “note” makes sense as a sub-category of the notebook, but collides with common usage in its other properties.

Another thing we have going against us is that while professional tools like Evernote and Glassboard have a similar model to ours, everyday tools like Facebook work more along the lines of the naive model: you post a picture and people comment and like; no nesting.

There are also ways that our interface increases confusion about where a notetaker is in this hierarchy. Let’s start at the notebook screen:

click to see larger image

click to see larger image

There are two parts to this screen (really 3 but we’ll get there later):
3 buttons along the top – each of these creates a new note using that media type
A list of existing notes – touching these lets you view the contents of a note

Let’s say I’m in the place of a novice user, so the list of existing notes is empty. What happens when I use a blue button to make a note? I end up here:

click, click, click

click, click, click

This is the note edit screen. If all went well, the photo I have taken shows up here with a timestamp and I am prompted to name the note. At this point most newcomers believe they have made a note (they have) and they are ready to make another (they are not). See, this list looks like the empty list of notes that they just left, only now it has an entry. What they see totally conforms to their reasonable but incorrect assumption about how the notebook works (almost – the difference is obvious to an experienced user but confusing or invisible to a newcomer).

From this point on, the newcomer is essentially lost between these two views and the note view UI, not really understanding how to get back and forth, or what they are adding content to. The map in the screenshot below is difficult to discover and get used to.

notebook ui map.004

You get the idea

FYI – The main hints we have that we are in the note view are the presence/absence of thumbnail images in the list, and location and color of “add new media” buttons.

Other related problems

While this isn’t the place to make an exhaustive list of problems with the Notebook, there are a couple more that relate to introducing newcomers to it in a workshop setting.

Complexity of the Notebook UI screen

As I hinted at above, by using the gear icon (notebook settings), and then touching a tiny button that shows up (shared), you can see the notes others have shared. Aside from being hard to notice/touch, I think the idea that shared notes are revealed by a setting is a bit hard to figure out.

Can’t create new note from media in camera roll

I think it is just weird that it is not an option to start a note from a photo that has already been taken; about half of my workshop participants last week wanted to start this way. You can add photos from the roll in later, just not start a note that way. Makes no sense to me.

Delete note/media is hard to discover

This is tough, because it’s not our fault. We use a very standard iOS method for deleting notes and their content. Maybe the problem is that we’re often working with people who are not that engaged with the finer points of iOS when we get them. We have a very similar problem with app freezes in relation to the multi-tasking tray.

Towards solutions

Finding these problems, though it took a while, is the easy part. I’m not sure I have a way out, especially one that is fast, easy, or doesn’t ruin everything else. I guess it might be possible to abandon our nested note model and use a flat array of media as notes. This probably means breaking any game that is already built on notes, and the reasons we wanted a deep model reflect our desire to use the notebook to collect nuanced and deep information, not simple snapchats. I think in the end, changing the structure of the notebook might only benefit workshop attendees and those using the notebook peripherally. As long as we do a better job of communicating and anticipating this conceptual depth, I think those who are going to spend some real time using the notebook may be better served, in the end, by a deeper data structure.

But I think there are some design decisions that could help. I am thinking of a couple in particular:

#1 Users create notes before adding media to them

First, we

  • Remove the three buttons to create a note with media, and
  • Add a plus button in the first empty row.
  • The plus button creates a new note and takes you to its “edit note” UI. The note title is selected to edit but one can add media without re-titling.

This slows down the time is takes to make a new note a bit, but separates the functionality of the notebook and note edit screens, helping to make the distinction a bit more clear. Also, when a picture is taken, the user leaves and re-enters the same screen – the only difference being the addition of media.

#2 My notebook and Shared Notebook tabs

Instead of accessing shared notes within the notebook tab via a preference, create two separate notebook tabs:
My notebook – the notes you have made
Shared Notebook – the notes everyone has shared.
This will make it easier for players to become aware of shared notes, and may create additional opportunities should we be able to turn tabs on/off via requirements in the future.


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