VIVO: Designing the Visual Interface
by Barbara Brynko
There’s a saying that a picture is worth a thousand words. So when Manolo Bevia, web interface designer at Cornell University’s Albert R. Mann Library, joined the VIVO pilot project in January, his mission was to create a brand identity for VIVO that reflected the mission of the fledgling National Network of Scientists.
“Visual design is part of creating the visual interface,” says Bevia. “The most important thing to me is how the user interacts with the interface and how the application relates to the user.” An inter face doesn’t have to be visually appealing to work well for the user; if it works, the application is going to be successful, he says. But his sense of design overrides that basic premise to ensure that VIVO’s interface has an enduring user appeal as well. Bevia and the user interface team are working under the leadership of Mike Conlon, director of data infrastructure at the University of Florida (UF) and principal investigator for the $12.2 million grant from the National Center for Research Resources funded by the National Institutes of Health.
“Users have access to all the data that has been taken in from institutional resources and corrected by the users themselves,” says Katy Börner, a professor at the School of Library and Information Science at Indiana University (IU). Much of the data in VIVO is listings of publications, awards, memberships, people profiles, and departments.
Börner and her team are concentrating their efforts on developing three types of visualization levels within VIVO: individual, institutional, and national. At the individual level, the focus is on the person with his or her individual co-authorship network and working environment. At the institutional level, users can access data via the index page to view an analysis of the institution. The facts and figures are being pulled out of the institution’s human resources’ databases. Funding data sets will also be incorporated into VIVO so they can be linked to and will be visible for institution leaders, school administrators, and internal funders, Börner says. At the top is the national visualization, where visits to the website can be tallied, along with the number of actual installation downloads and requests for information from other institutions and data providers. “All of this activity around VIVO is going to be visualized on a map of the world to see what VIVO’s ecosystem looks like over time,” says Börner.
Since the VIVO platform will be incorporated into a range of institutions and universities, a one-size-fits-all user interface just won’t work. Bevia says that multiple interfaces and multiple visual designs will be created, along with a default so institutions can tailor the look and style of the VIVO site to complement an institution’s home website. “We will supply the institution with the full VIVO platform and then they can use part of it or create part of their own. It’s designed to be customizable,” he says.
“I created the identity guidelines for the brand,” says Bevia, “but I see that identity evolving as VIVO continues to grow.” When designing the brand, his group created a new look for VIVO, as well as a new logo, that reflects VIVO’s open community software for its expanding network of scientists. The standard application was designed so more content and more value for the user can be added over time.
Bevia and his team took the marketing research about VIVO and created an assortment of options for the VIVO brand. Of the 10 preliminary designs, three were selected for the next round of approvals. The entire process was a “collaborative effort between the branding and marketing teams,” he says.
“Creating the UI [user interface] is very challenging,” says Bevia. “VIVO is a different beast in that we created the UI before the application.” VIVO’s technology is different because of its semantic ontology and modeling, he says. Plus, the interface has to be intuitive and easy to use because not all VIVO users will know much about the technology on the back end. “The interface has to reflect what the application does, which has been a very interesting challenge for me.”
For Börner and her team, the visualization process is also tricky. “Although the VIVO platform has been implemented at the seven pilot institutions, not all of them are fully filled with data yet,” she says. For the visualization design, she says it would be helpful to know the maximum or minimum number of co-authors for each person in a profile, which would reflect “what kind of visualization we could use to show the network for one person.” But that hasn’t happened yet, and the data is still being loaded and processed to fill out the people profiles.
Plus, VIVO’s ontologies and taxonomies are still being refined. “In all of the VIVO data dumps we’ve done so far, we’re seeing different ways that different institutions have to refer to the same position,” says Börner. “One university may have a senior technical senior programmer, a position that is the same as a programmer or a research assistant or a research assistant programmer at another facility,” she says. Though text analytics can look for similar words, “you can’t automatically tell whether these are the same positions,” she says. “Everyone names the teams differently.”
Finally, Börner and her team ended up mapping the structure and connections among the VIVO team manually. “We used listserv data to identify each institution’s memberships in the VIVO implementation, development, outreach, and other teams,” she says.
The result of the hours of painstaking effort is the chart on page 19 that shows a grid depicting the interconnectivity of the 120 members of the VIVO team scattered among the seven institutions participating in the project (UF, IU, Cornell, the Weill Cornell Medical College, Washington University–St. Louis, the Scripps Research Institute, and the Ponce School of Medicine in Puerto Rico), as well as the VIVO Advisory Board members.
“Science in the 21st century is truly interdisciplinary, cross-institutional, and dynamic, with teams and team memberships that change dynamically,” says Börner. “In fact, the chart of the VIVO team members [on page 19] is correct for only one day—May 7, 2010.”