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Information Visualization Research Proposal

UCSD COGS 220 Information Visualization


For Information Visualization (COGS 220), a graduate-level course led by Jim Hollan, we had to choose a topic to investigate, then write a formal proposal for future research. My project focused on efficient visualization of digital pen notes.

A wireframe sketch of a potential note-viewing UI.


Our quarter-long assignment required each student to individually draft a proposal for a potential visualization-based research project. I wanted to study the techniques used for various types of note-taking and determine a better system for digitally capturing notes created with digital pens. My goal for writing the proposal was to determine what issues people take when taking and reviewing different kinds of notes, then propose a system to address those issues.


To begin my research on note-taking habits, I conducted contextual interviews with various people, including a screenwriter, a contractor, and a student. During this interviews, I asked about their goals and needs for taking notes. With each subject, I walked through several pages of the subjects' notebooks, asking about particular formatting or structuring of the notes. I also attempted to perform counts of various elements, but found it to be too arbitrary and difficult without a more robust classification system.

Through the interviews, I discovered a number of interesting techniques that people used to take notes in their notebooks. For example, I learned that the screenwriter would often write ideas as quickly as he could without any attempt to group similar ideas together; he simply wanted to get his ideas down as fast as possible. Later, he would start to group ideas together to begin forming stories. This data point showed me that people don't always focus on clean organization, a finding that would influence my suggested system.

In addition to direct user research, I consulted a number of research articles about note-taking habits, the effects of improved note-taking, and the types of notes that people take. The research was very eye-opening and gave me a better understanding of how scientists conduct their proposals and work.

UCSD's Human-Computer Interactions and Distributed Cognition Laboratory had been working with the Anoto digital pens, which are pens with infrared cameras that detect a spatially-unique array of dots to determine the pen's position on each page. The result is a digitization of whatever the user writes on the special paper. I wanted to explore how I could apply the pen technology and visualization techniques to improve paper-based note-taking.

I came up with an idea for a system that would allow users to "cut out" snippets of their paper notes using pen-based gestures (e.g. bounding corners around the desired section), then transferring that snippet to a desired digital notebook. This would allow note-takers to ignore paper-based organization and instead use their notebooks primarily as a capture device rather than a storage device; their notes would be transferred automatically to a digital file, which could better handle future changes in organization. I also came up with some interactive design models for the visualization of digitized notes, such as viewing the change of notes over time (an affordance that obviously doesn't exist with paper).

I created several wireframes and examples, then wrote my proposal to describe my envisioned system and my methods of research that brought me to pursue the topic.


From my user interviews and my research via a number of scientific articles, I gained a lot of insight into the easily-overlooked topic of note-taking. I learned why people take notes, how they take notes, how they edit their notes, and how they review their notes at a later date. In addition to learning about this specific topic, the project helped me improve the way I look at and analyze everyday objects and practices with respect to cognitive science.

In addition, I learned about how to write a scientific proposal and am proud of the work that I produced.

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