Thursday, February 09, 2006

Creativity Support Tools

Ben Shneiderman has posted the individual papers and extensive summary of the NSF-sponsored Workshop on Creativity Support Tools that took place in June 2005.

I haven't read all of them yet, but my initial impression is some disappointment that the workshop participants were academics and no one purely from the creative tool "user" persuasion was there. It looks a bit industry internal, and not just software industry internal, but research-world internal. Many of the literature citations support this, although I did find a book or two I didn't know about (e.g., Polya's How to Solve It). It wasn't surprising to see quotes from Csikszentmihalyi's Creativity but it was not clear to me that the cultural recognition of creative work as valuable should be relevant to the design of software to support the act of creating.

This said, there are interesting points, especially if you work on software design for creatives, as I have in the last 3 jobs (if you include scientists, which Mihaly Csik. does). The Design Principles article includes these items:

  • Support Exploration: First, it must be very easy to try things out, and then backtrack when unsuccessful. This means that the tools must be trustworthy so that users are comfortable trying things. For example, a very good Undo capability is required in the tools.... A second requirement is that the tools be “self-revealing” so that it is clear to users what can be done. If the flexibility is not apparent, it will not be used....Another way to support exploration is to make it very fast to “sketch” out different alternatives at the early stages of design.
  • Have Low Threshold, High Ceiling, and Wide Walls:Effective tool designs should make it easy for novices to get started (low threshold) but also possible for experts to work on increasingly sophisticated projects (high ceiling) [Myers 2000]. The low threshold means that the interface should not be intimidating, and should give users immediate confidence that they can succeed. The high ceiling means that the tools are powerful and can create sophisticated, complete solutions. Too often tools that enable creative thinking may be quite hard to learn (they don’t have a low threshold). Instead, they focus on providing numerous powerful features so that experts can assemble results quickly. Now, we add a third goal: wide walls. That is, creativity support tools should support and suggest a wide range of explorations.
  • Support Many Paths and Many Styles. People work in different ways, right brain vs. left brain, "hard" vs. "soft" approaches.
  • Support Collaboration among multiple users. In all of our projects, in schools, and in the “real world,” most creative work is done in teams.
  • Support Open Interchange: The creative process will not usually be supported by a single tool, but rather will require that the user orchestrate a variety of tools each of which supports part of the task. Creativity support tools should seamlessly interoperate with other tools. This includes the ability to easily import and export data from conventional tools such as spreadsheets, word processors and data analysis tools, and also with other creativity support tools. This requires that the data formats in the files be open and well-defined.
  • Make It As Simple As Possible - and Maybe Even Simpler: A plea to reduce featuritis, which will appeal to my boss, for sure.
  • Choose Black Boxes Carefully:In designing creativity support tools, one of the most important decisions is the choice of the “primitive elements” that users will manipulate. This choice determines, to a large extent, what ideas users can explore with the tool – and what ideas remain hidden from view.

While the principles look good to me, the examples surrounding them are a little thin, as far as my needs go. But I found it interesting reading nevertheless and recommend browsing the site.


Anonymous said...

I haven't read through the papers carefully and can only offer anecdotes, but this is an interesting area.

There are stages of the process that need support and tools should probably be focused. The thought of something that helps a photographer take the image and do the processing, post processing and printing is silly.

For me Photoshop is an amazing (albeit frustrating) tool because I know what it is like to use a darkroom. Photoshop allows rapid experiments that range from impractical to impossible in the darkroom. My skills and insight into making "art" crossed barriers that would have been impossible with my darkroom skills and funding levels.

Cameras, on the other hand, are still problematic. I'm not a good photographer, but when I'm around people who are, I'm struck by how orthogonal many features of modern digital cameras are to the way they think. There is enormous room for innovation here and I'm surprised we haven't seen much.

I've also taken up sketching in recent years. Most of the tools are really awful. I generally want portability and some sort of feedback. The feel of a pencil on paper is (for me) very important and perhaps necessary to get me in the right frame of mind. I'm very choosey about the type of pencil, how it is sharpened and the texture of the paper. Wacom tablets are nice and offer other freedoms, but I find I can't do anything original with them. I will sketch on paper to get the ideas - then I can do it with a tablet, but I need that feel to be "creative"


In physics people tend to build their own tools and/or partner with people who can watch and listen. Larry Smarr did some fantastic stuff with data visualization in the early 90s. Playing with data sets is a big thing. I think much of this is like Photoshop - the tools aren't ideal, but they allow you to do things that were impossible.

Being around the right people at the right time and engaging in tossing ideas around is fundamental for most of the work I've been party to . .. digital cameras for capturing black boards is nice, but long walks and being in different settings is also important. Aspen, Cold Harbor and other interesting locations have been very powerful enabling tools.

Distance collaboration is critical these days and I'm seeing heavy use of rss as an alerting mechanism. I think there is a big gap between getting rough thoughts down and actually sharing them with others. Groups have evolved very different styles.

A four sigma case is an author friend who does his productive work in a tree house. The solitude and nature sounds are very important, even though he doesn't write about them. He has to collaborate with an editor. His claim is his productivity went up a huge amount when they tried subethaedit combined with IM. He found that other ways of dealing with change and comments tended to break his "flow".


The idea of supporting creativity for the hobbyist level person strikes me as powerful - probably because that is where I mostly live and because there is a large market. I think making tools for this group is even more challenging than the for the pros

Lynn said...

This was a great comment. I especially like your points about the tools and their feeling -- I was moping about the lack of realistic paper/pen feeling in wacom tablets to my boss last month. And I'm not even a sketching person (yet).

The issue of data vis tools is close to my heart, as you know. Martin Wattenberg and I discuss this whenever I get the chance to spend time with him (not enough)... I am fascinated by the difficulty of presenting data sources in a way that enables the discovery of relations between them and within them (without just showing "noise"), presenting the visual results in a way that is insight-providing and not misleading, and allowing easy intuitive exploration of different hypotheses via good tools to "post-process" the data and the relationships you (think you) find. Data mining should be a flow experience too.

Evaluation of data mining tools and infovis apps has been very weak to date. I guess this is one thing I took away from my time at Mathworks -- a love and respect for this problem domain, and a lot of reading to do on it.