Human Computer Interaction
ERCIM News No.46, July 2001 [contents]

Human-Computer Interaction Issues in FAIRWIS

by Maria Francesca Costabile and Paolo Buono

FAIRWIS (Trade FAIR Web-based Information Services) is an ongoing project at the University of Bari, funded by the European Union. This project aims at offering on-line innovative services to support trade fair business processes and a large number of exhibitors organised in a Web-based virtual fair.

Traditionally, the information media for supporting trade fair events are paper-based: booklets, flyers, maps, etc. are the means used to exchange information. In recent years, some Web-based information sites have been made available, providing information both on trade fair events and on companies participating in these fairs. However, these data are not organised in an integrated, homogeneous and comprehensive way, since they are usually presented in a rigid pre-designed company oriented style. Moreover, currently available Web sites exploit static data which is difficult to update and make available on-line in an appropriate format. FAIRWIS has a real time connection with an underlying database to guarantee coherence of data and up-to-date status.

In FAIRWIS, the whole concept of trade fairs is transferred into electronic form, and visualisation techniques, including virtual reality, are used in order to provide a feeling of ‘reality’ to the users of trade fair information systems. The figure is an example of a virtual reality visualisation of a fair venue, with all the stands. The project does not aim at substituting, but at enhancing the existing traditional approach of getting people together

Presenting data on the Web in a convincing and understandable way requires a lot of work when data change dynamically; in particular it is difficult to modify the graphical layout without disorienting the users. One of the main objectives of FAIRWIS is to facilitate human-computer interaction (HCI) and to allow easy access to the stored data. Several data visualisations are generated to present the retrieved information in appropriate ways. Thus, specific categories of users to whom FAIRWIS is primarily addressed, namely fair organisers, exhibitors, and professional visitors (people who visit the fair for business reasons and not only for fun), can get valuable help in the different phases of the decision making processes needed to improve their own business.

The FAIRWIS project and the system development have been carried out with a user-centred methodology, in order to build a system that satisfies clear usability objectives. The basic principles of user-centred design are:

A user-centred approach requires understanding reality: who will use the system, where, how, and to do what. The system is designed iterating a design-implementation-evaluation cycle. In this way, it is possible to avoid serious mistakes and to save re-implementation time, since the first design is based on empirical knowledge of user behaviour, needs, and expectations. In accordance with this methodology, together with all partners in the project, we have devoted a lot of effort to collecting user information by observing users in their workplaces and interviewing them. It is well known that this is not an easy task and is also very time consuming. However, a careful user analysis in the first phase of the system project and user involvement in the evaluation of the system prototypes are the only ways to ensure that the produced system will conform to the users’ needs and expectations. FAIRWIS offers a modular solution, whose main modules are:

The figure shows some of the capabilities of the graphical engine. A characteristic worth mentioning is that an updating of the underlying database is automatically shown in the visualised scene.

Example of a virtual reality visualization of a trade fair venue.

The user profile engine has been developed to take into account that another important issue for improving HCI, especially when different types of users access the system, is to provide suggestions and indications automatically adapted to the user currently working with the system, in order to help him or her to find information of interest. The personalisation component implemented in FAIRWIS actually works as a recommender system that helps users navigating in the catalogues of the exhibited products.

The aim of the FAIRWIS marketing component is to manage and improve interactive relationships among FAIRWIS users. More specifically, company managers can plan company activity on the basis of historical data available in the database. An objective of the data analysis engine is to serve the needs of specific types of users, primarily fair organisers and exhibitors, by allowing them to easily retrieve information useful for their marketing activities. For this purpose, it exploits appropriate visualisation techniques, in accordance with the results of recent research in a specific field of HCI, that is information visualisation, which has proved that suitable visualisations can reduce the time needed to obtain information, and make sense out of it.

The support of the European Commission through grant FAIRWIS IST-1999-12641 is acknowledged. We are also grateful to the work carried out by the other partners of the FAIRWIS project.

Please contact:
Maria Francesca Costabile or Paolo Buono – Dipartimento di Informatica, Universita' di Bari, Italy
Tel: +39 080 5443300
E-mail: {costabile, buono}