Organization overviews and role management:
Inspiration for future desktop environments

Catherine Plaisant and Ben Shneiderman*

Human-Computer Interaction Laboratory
Center for Automation Research
*also Department of Computer Science
University of Maryland, College Park, MD 20742
Tel. (301) 405-2768 and 2680,


Role manager, personal roles, desktop metaphor, coordination, window management.


We worked with the World Bank, a large international organization, to look at desktop environments of the near future. We chose to focus on a subset of problems that employees regularly have to struggle with:

- finding people who can help

- searching documents and resources

- juggling many roles (e.g. a person can be in charge of three projects, member of two task forces, editor of the bank magazine, and organizer of the holiday party.) A great deal of personal organization is required to manage these roles whose goals, partners, tools and documents are likely to be very different. The previous research on role theory [1] or CSCW focuses mainly on the coordination of individuals while our goal is to assist individuals manage their multiple roles.


We propose Personal Role Management as the guiding concept for the next generation of graphic user interfaces [2]. The first generation was the command line interfaces that required users to know about computer concepts and syntax; These were replaced by second generation graphical user interfaces with the desktop metaphor, icons, and folders. Now, the third generation emphasizes a docucentric approach, in which applications fade into the background while multimedia documents become the center of attention. We believe that the natural progression is toward a fourth generation user-centered design emphasizing user's roles, colleagues, and tasks rather than documents. Each separate role involves coordination with differents groups of people and accomplishment of tasks within a schedule.


Our work on visual information seeking has highlighted the importance of overviews to facilitate orientation, monitoring, and detection of clusters, outliers, or trends. For the desktop we suggest the use of a tailorable overview of the organization (here called Bankscape). It is made of 4 parts: the personal and workgroups views (both reflecting the personal roles of the user), plus the business unit and institutional views reflecting the environment in which the work is conducted. It reflects the organization of the tools and information which can be explored. This overview, coupled with display controls and query controls, provides a consistent visual support to display the result of searches. The Bankscape overview is also a part of the Personal Role Management. It provides a visual representation of the relationships between a user's many roles. This representation can be used to access the roles themselves or to gather documents, people or resources for a role.


Dynamic queries [3] are a novel approach to information seeking that may enable users to cope with information overload. They allow users to see an overview of the database, rapidly (100 msec updates) explore and conveniently filter out unwanted information. Our video illustrates a search across the directory and a report database. The use of dynamic queries allows users to rapidly get to a usable subset of names. Users can readjust the query while watching on the Bankscape how the result is affected by each step of the query.

The prototype illustrates how users can move smoothly between searching for people, reading documents or information, and initiating communication with colleagues. Names and numbers do not need to be retyped or copied. Default "behavior" or settings take in to account previous actions in other applications. The prototype also gives examples of coordinated window management when related windows are opened or closed together. Such techniques will relieve the user from much of the tedious window house-keeping that plagues current window applications.


[1] Singh, B. & Rein, G. (1992) Role Interaction Nets (RINS): A Process Description Formalism, MCC, Austin, TX, USA, Technical Report CT-083-92

[2] Shneiderman, B., Plaisant, C.(1994), The Future of Graphic User Interfaces: Personal Role Managers , Keynote address, in People and Computers IX, British Computer Society HCI'94, Glasgow, Scotland (Aug. 1994) pp.3-8.

[3] Shneiderman, B. (1994) Dynamic Queries: a step beyond database languages, IEEE Software 11 (6), pp.7-77

Note: This "low fidelity" prototype was prepared with Macromedia Director and designed for a large 21" monitor.

---We greatly appreciate the support of the World Bank---.


In our exploration of future work environments for the World Bank we propose two concepts. Organization overviews provide a consistent support to present the results of a variety of manual or semi-automated searches. This view can be adapted or expanded for each class of users to finally map the multiple personal roles an individual has in an organization. After command line interfaces, graphical point and click interfaces, and the current "docu-centric" designs, the natural direction is towards a role-centered approach where we believe the emphasis is on the management of those multiple roles. Each role involves coordination with groups of people and accomplishment of tasks within a schedule.