Our app supports decisions made on 500-1000 research proposals for our telescopes. The proposals have a lot of dimensions, so the users would like to be able to explore similar proposals. ("Proposals that don't need a laser guide star and involve 'targets of opportunity'")

Our current UI does this with a tabbed box that has two rows of checkboxes marked "Exclude" and "Only." This wouldn't be terrible, but for the fact that some categories are binary and some have enumerations (e.g., the need for a laser guide star is a yes/no, but there are several flavors of target of opportunity). The end result is a UI that only George Boole could love.

I've tried to do some sketches taking the periodic table as inspiration, but the element count is high and the number of dimensions seems too big -- I can't fit hundreds of tiles big enough to show ~10 characteristics on a display.

Any thoughts on inspirations or "just" well-implemented UXs in a similar vein?

3 Answers 3

  • The critical issue, from your description, is finding related/similar proposals.

Have a look at this visualisation: force directed layout, which could cluster your documents, giving you the kind of periodic table you are looking for, that can then be explored.

The UX advantage here is that instead of requesting each group of related proposals with a separate filter query, you get all the groups at once. Less interaction is required to accomplish the task.

It does require a shift in thinking about what a filter is - thinking about what it does for the user rather than the underlying mechanics. Is Google doing filtering when it scores and sorts search results? I'd say 'Yes'.

So if the filters you want are the ones George Bool would love, then you have to look for a nicer way to build expressions. I'd wager that you will find you get more mileage looking at filters based on similarity scores. The UI for these can be simpler - a weight (a 0 to 100 slider) for each dimension saying how important it is in your current partitioning of proposals.


Doing a cluster based visualization interface, even with protovis to jumpstart the process, is going to be significant work. You can get benefit from proposal similarity scoring earlier without that visualization. Offer a sorted list of proposals sorted by similarity to a chosen proposal. That's quick and easy to implement. Click beside a proposal and it moves to the top, and the list is re-sorted by similarity to it.

  • 2
    Double-thanks for the "low-hanging fruit" which I can rapidly prototype and check for value with the users... May 13, 2011 at 22:42
  • 1
    +1 for proposing a different approach that could well do a much better job than optimising a familiar way of doing things... May 14, 2011 at 9:36
  • +1 for suggesting an approach to a very similar UI filtering problem I've been struggling with for weeks! May 15, 2011 at 22:30

I haven't seen an actual great example, but I think you should be able to add rules dynamically like Outlook's rule mechanism. You can combine that by using a dynamic listbox where to quickly use the keywords to locate rules.


Enter keyword [__________]

When you type 'la' it hints 'laser'. Then you can either select to 'include' or 'exclude':

   Enter keyword [laser__]
   ( ) Include 
   (X) Exclude
   [add new rule]

And for a rule with multiple options you could list the options below,

Excluding lasers
  Enter keyword [flavor__]
  (X) Include 
  ( ) Exclude
    [ ] Vanilla
    [ ] Strawberry 
  [add new rule]

Perhaps the way outlook underlines the words so the rules are presented in human language ("when the from-address _contains_ 'useful', move this message to folder not-useful") You can then click on the parts you need to change: from_address can be subject, contains can be 'doesn't contain' or 'is exactly', etc.) I don't think this should be the primary way of entering rules, but it makes changing or refining a rule very easy.


How about a simple grid, with filtering and sorting functionality? It's not very sexy, but it's very usable :). I'm suggesting a spreadsheet, basically.

  • This is more or less what we have. The problem is the filtering UX. Is there a spreadsheet that does a particularly good job with filtering? May 14, 2011 at 18:27
  • I find that users understand well the filtering functionality of most smart grids - e.g. the type used in Outlook, especially in expert systems. May 14, 2011 at 19:40

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