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Image Conscious

When IBM's research division hired Martin Wattenberg, it asked him to perform an act of alchemy: Transform tangles of Internet data into crystal-clear pictures.

"Everyone has too much to read," Wattenberg says. "It's easy to get overwhelmed. Visual representations can show you what's important and what's noise." Before joining IBM, Wattenberg had created's "Map of the Market," which paints a dynamic portrait of Wall Street activity. Now, working in the company's Collaborative User Experience group in Cambridge, Massachusetts, he and his team write software that guides users through thickets of information via pictures.

One demonstration project, code-named ForumReader, was created to help users navigate discussion boards with hundreds of postings. A tower of blocks on the left side of the screen represents individual postings. The longer the block, the longer the message it represents. Different colors indicate which messages were ranked as important by other readers. Users can easily highlight all the messages by a particular author, or on a particular topic, and click directly to them.

Another project, dubbed History Flow, illustrates the changes made over time to a collaboratively written or edited document. Each author is represented by an individual color; anonymous authors are coded gray. The result looks like a stratified sample of a multihued rock. History Flow can show when authors' contributions have been deleted, when sections of a document have been moved, and how much each person has contributed to the final version. Wattenberg has been testing it with Wikipedia (, a collaboratively written encyclopedia—but he thinks History Flow will also be useful for other group projects, such as pieces of software written by several programmers or team reports.

Wattenberg's visually arresting software could eventually find a place in IBM's product line. One of his next projects could be tackling the chaos of the email inbox, using imagery to indicate which messages require immediate attention.

"We want to create stuff that helps people get work done," says Wattenberg. "We love to come up with new ideas, and we don't think there's a contradiction between something being interesting to research and potentially being a good product."

A version of this article appeared in the January 2004 issue of Fast Company magazine.

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