foodscanner–the social contract in micro-IR

An inaugural blog post should be monumental, a manifesto even.  But this high bar has been keeping me from getting  IRepeat going.  As such, I’ve decided to start more modestly.

Recently I posted to probablyIrrelevant about “micro-IR” which may or may not be something new.  The idea was picked up by theNoisyChannel and FXPAL Blog.  In efforts to triangulate on what micro-IR is, this is the first installment of a series of entries that highlight specific micro-retrieval applications.

I should state clearly: posts about particular applications are not endorsements on my part.  They are simply examples.

foodscanner is part of the larger dailyBurn diet management application.  foodscanner is an iphone app that scans bar codes on food items, shows you the item’s nutritional information, and allows you to store (and later analyze) the nutritional value of your diet.

In what sense does foodscanner constitute a micro-IR application?

  1. It is tightly linked to a particular task, a particular context: monitoring diet.
  2. The search space is narrowly constrained and highly structured: each “food” is represented as a single database record with agreed-upon nutritional information available.
  3. It uses innovative affordances  to make articulating a complex information need simple.  Here the affordances entail both the iphone’s technology (camera and a third-party barcode scanner) and the constrained information space (the system ‘knows’ a priori the thrust of the searcher’s problem).
  4. The information retrieved by foodscanner naturally feeds (no pun intended) into another application (DailyBurn) which supports more complex, secondary information interactions.

Points 1-3 suggest an important characteristic of micro-IR.  In a micro-IR setting, expectations are high.  This applies both to searchers and to the system.  That is, the system expects that users will express their information need in a way that is highly informative; however, the burden of this expectation is lightened for the user by the application’s design (however successful; here’s where innovation enters the fray).  In return for this highly informative ‘query’ the user expects information that is immediately actionable: I search and then I have the information I need to decide whether or not to eat this food.

I’m leaning towards calling the high bar of expectations in micro-IR an aspect of the social contract between users and systems.  This contract, I argue, is different in micro-IR systems than it is in other IR venues.  But exactly how to characterize the idea of IR’s social contract is up for grabs and with luck will inform a future IRepeat post.

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