The Design and Long-Term Use of a Personal Electronic Notebook

Thomas Erickson , Apple Computer

Seminar on People, Computers, and Design
Stanford University May 10, 1996


A general design problem is discovering how to make something useful, as opposed to just usable. This problem is particularly acute for systems like electronic notebooks that support the capture, use, and management of personal information. Unlike conventional applications such as word processors or spreadsheets, a notebook is very personal: it only becomes useful over time-months or years-as it becomes the repository of more and more personally relevant information, and as it becomes increasingly entwined with its user's work practices. While it is straightforward to study usability, it is much more of a challenge to understand which features, and which modes of use, would make such a notebook useful.

In this talk I'll describe the design and use -- over a period of three and a half years -- of a personal electronic notebook. The findings provide a useful data point for those interested in the issue of how to design highly customizable systems for managing personal information. After a description of the notebook's interface and the usage practices that have co-evolved with the interface, I'll discuss some of the features which have made the notebook useful over the long term, as well as reflecting on trends in the evolution of its design.


Thomas Erickson is an interaction analyst and designer in Apple Computer's Advanced Technology Group. During his eight years at Apple his responsibilities have included investigating real world situations, designing new kinds of computational artifacts, and creating scenarios and visions for future uses of computational technology. Some of his research has actually made it into actual products--specifically Publish & Subscribe in System 7, AppleSearch, and (on the Internet) the WAIS system. Among his current research interests are understanding what makes real world environments rich and inviting places, and applying that understanding to the design of virtual communities, intelligent devices, and to physical environments with embedded computational technology.


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