Category Archives: Concept

Participation Inequality in Social Networks and Ponzu

It’s an old post but still as relevant as ever. A great post by Jakob Nielsen on encouraging more users to contribute to a social network.

Some excerpts with my comments;

User participation often more or less follows a 90-9-1 rule:

  • 90% of users are lurkers (i.e., read or observe, but don’t contribute).
  • 9% of users contribute from time to time, but other priorities dominate their time.
  • 1% of users participate a lot and account for most contributions: it can seem as if they don’t have lives because they often post just minutes after whatever event they’re commenting on occurs.

At the MBSJ2012, we had better results. In the analysis of “likes”, we found that 45% of the participants used the “like” button more than once. That is many times more than the 1% + 9% = 10% you would except from the 90-9-1 rule.

Jakob Nielsen also gives some recommendations to increase participation.

Although participation will always be somewhat unequal, there are ways to better equalize it, including:

  • Make it easier to contribute. The lower the overhead, the more people will jump through the hoop. For example, Netflix lets users rate movies by clicking a star rating, which is much easier than writing a natural-language review.
  • Make participation a side effect. Even better, let users participate with zero effort by making their contributions a side effect of something else they’re doing. For example, Amazon’s “people who bought this book, bought these other books” recommendations are a side effect of people buying books. You don’t have to do anything special to have your book preferences entered into the system. Will Hill coined the term read wear for this type of effect: the simple activity of reading (or using) something will “wear” it down and thus leave its marks — just like a cookbook will automatically fall open to the recipe you prepare the most.

Our “like” system falls within the category of “make it easier to contribute”. It also incorporates “make participation a side effect”, because you need to “like” a presentation to put it into “my schedule”. These likely contributed strongly to the better participation ratios at MBSJ2012.


In scientific conferences, participation inequality is a very important issue. This is because the online community is not the end-product, but it only serves as a means to enhance the scientific community, the vast majority of which is not very active on social networks. More importantly, the more important members of the scientific community, i.e. the professors, are less inclined to participate in these activities compared to young researchers.

Hence we should restrain ourselves from going overboard with social features which will tend to make the whole system unfriendly towards less social active participants. The social features should be there, but not necessarily prominent. They should help participants subtly and not be intrusive. We should also measure the success by the ratio of participants and the median activity, rather than the total number of activities. Most importantly, I believe that we should refrain from using social network features as a “voting” system for awards, unless we augment that with more traditional methods.

I believe social networks are important for scientific networks, but it is only a tool that has to be used very carefully. Ponzu (A Japanese sauce) is great for some food, but not so for others. Even when it goes well with your dish, too much will spoil it.

Balance between low-tech and high-tech

I just received a newsletter from Jakob Nielsen, a well know User Interface and User Experience expert. In it, he describes his experience a the National Museum of Singapore.

Sadly, the museum is an example of mobile technology run amok. All information about the exhibited objects is provided on a tablet that you borrow when entering the history exhibition. The good news is that this allows for more in-depth information than traditional museum labels, and it’s also easier to provide the text in multiple languages that would crowd a printed label.

But the tablet fails to support the actual museum-going experience. You pause by a wall or display case with maybe 10-20 objects, each only marked by a number. And then you’re supposed to enter all these numbers into the tablet to find out what you’re seeing. No way: much too slow.

Nothing beats the roaming human eye in terms of quickly taking in volumes of information, especially when glancing around a large physical space. In a second or two, you can scan a big wall and focus on the label for the object that interests you the most. A few more seconds suffice to scan the label for the most pertinent information (what is it? how old is it?), and then you can either read more or move your gaze to the next object. All in much less time than it takes to type in a 3-4 digit number on a tablet.

You can easily imagine a more efficient retrieval user interface: for example one that utilizes location and direction to display information about an object simply by being pointed in the direction of that object. While faster, this would still be slower than simply glancing at a label next to the object.

Let’s stick to old technology when it works better. Then for sure use tablets to provide supplementary information, multimedia, and other elements that utilize its strengths and provide sufficient added-value to justify the interaction cost.

The take away message is

  1. If basic information can be provided by a traditional museum label placed by the exhibited object, this is the superior way of providing it.
  2. Use tablets to provide supplementary information.
  3. Don’t force the users to use high-tech to gain simple information.

The same thing can be said of conferences. Basic information such as which talks are being given at a certain room should be displayed by the door on paper. There should also be a map of rooms hung on the wall of each floor. Don’t force participants to pull out their smartphones or tablets.

Possibilities of the poster map system

In MBSJ2012, we introduced a “poster map” function for the very first time in the world. This poster map function highlights which posters you “liked” or which posters you added to “my schedule”. This enables participants to easily find which posters they need to visit.

The poster map is drawn using a simple combination of HTML & CSS. All of the poster rows are simply positioned absolutely and placed on top of a background image of the poster hall. The only difficult part is calculating the location of each poster.

In the future, we could easily extend the poster map concept to the exhibition. Participants could “like” booths, and efficiently visit the ones that they are interested in.

What should Ponzu include?

One huge oversight in the MBSJ2012 system was that we focused too much on the social aspects of the scientific program, and we didn’t provide enough support for other things (i.e. exhibition, maps, forums, etc.). Due to time and organizational constraints, it’s not clear if we could have done it even if we gave enough though about it. However, it is obvious that future iterations of Ponzu need to be better at this.

The scientific program is usually completely separate

In all the conference websites that I am aware of, the website or smartphone application that provides presentations abstracts is separate from the main conference website. For example, on the MBSJ2012 website, the separation was as follows;

Main conference website

  1. Greetings from the organizing comittee.
  2. Satellite forums.
  3. Registration info.
  4. Submission of abstracts.
  5. Child care information.
  6. Access.
  7. Lodging (external website).
  8. Exhibition (external website).
  9. Other events (job seminars).

Scientific program website

  1. Oral presentations.
  2. Poster presentations.
  3. Other events (yoruzemi).
  4. Social features.

This separation is quite typical.

Information should be more integrated

The problem is that this separation is completely due to technical reasons, and that it doesn’t take into consideration how participants want to use the system.

For example, if a participant was interested in next-generation sequencing techniques, they would not only want to view scientific presentations but they would also want to search through the exhibitions. In this case, the search function should be able to search through both the scientific program and the exhibitions.

More importantly, as conferences become bigger and try to be more than just science, the importance of fringe events become larger. For example, MBSJ2012 had job seminars, high-school student presentations and quick snack stands. MBSJ2013 is also contemplating a wide array of non-scientific events. Increasing awareness of these events is very important, and the website should play an large role in this. More integration is needed to maximize promotion.

Increasing the scope of information on a website presents significant new challenges on the navigation structure. However, when done right, it should increase participation on fringe events and it should also raise interest in the exhibitions. We will discuss some of these following posts.

Framing the scope

The separation prevalent on current conference websites stems from technical reasons. The software and systems that power a) the main conference page, b) the scientific program, and c) the exhibition are all different and are often even run by separate vendors.

To create a better experience for the participants, we have to break down these walls and think about what would be best for the users. We propose the following reasoning.

  1. Participants can juggle multiple websites from the comfort of their office and a high-speed Internet connection.
  2. Participants have limited access to the Internet at the conference venue. Hence they have much less tolerance for juggling multiple sites at the event. Ideally, all information required once the conference has started, should be on a single website.
  3. This means that the following information should be provided on a single website.
    1. Satellite forums.
    2. Registration info (on site).
    3. Access.
    4. Exhibition.
    5. Other events.
    6. Scientific program.
    7. Other events (yoruzemi)
    8. Social features.


Left navigation can get annoying

When the breadth of a single website gets very broad, a common way to present all of the information is by using a left navigation widget. MBSJ2012 has quite a long left navigation. The JBS2012 also uses left navigation.

Left navigation is good, but it takes up a lot of space. It’s OK if the content that we need to show on each page is actually quite small. However for pages where content is large, left-navigation breaks down.

In the MBSJ2012, the addition of social features alone required quite a few additional menus. Therefore we broke down the menu structure into the following;

Top-navigation only for most pages

A lot of the pages for the scientific program were very content heavy. The screenshot below shows the poster map, and you can see that there is absolutely no space for a left-navigation menu. Instead we used top-menu navigation. However, it is difficult to put a large number of items on a top-menu (it get’s downright impossible on smartphones). We therefore demoted those items to a sub-menu on the “HOME” page.

Poster map

Left-navigation on “HOME” page

To accommodate extra menu items without overloading the top-menu, we put these on a sub-menu on the “HOME” page.

HOME page MBSJ2012

The following is an alternate design that we might use in the future. By using icons, we can make each section more attractive. This might be what we need to get participants’ attention.

Prototype HOME

Conclusions and Future directions

Future conference systems will have to integrate more information into a single website. The challenge is to provide a navigation system that is not only easy to use, but also raises awareness of fringe events and features.

The MBSJ2012 introduced social features as a fringe capability, and used a sub-menu on the “HOME” page for navigation. Although we think that this was sufficient from a usability standpoint, further measures are needed if we want to aggressively promote new features.

Conference programs in a social world

Here we discuss how conference programs should interplay with external social networking systems like Twitter and Facebook. We will also discuss how currents systems fail.

Links from social network sites

Nowadays, the most common way to share information on the internet is by sharing links on social network sites like Twitter and Facebook. One common use case would be where one of the authors shares his/her presentation with co-authors or colleagues.

Although link sharing is very common and most Internet users take it for granted, the rising popularity of mobile devices and the use of native applications has made it a challenge. There are increasingly more cases where simple link sharing doesn’t work.

Currently Ponzu has some complications when sharing links across devices. More specifically, a link from the mobile website viewed on a smartphone, when viewed on a PC, will display the same mobile version. This is OK on Safari, Chrome or Firefox, but has issues on Internet Explorer. Similar situations occur when a PC link is viewed on a smartphone, etc.

If the conference has a native application for smartphones, the situation is often worse. These application usually have not assigned URLs to each presentation so sharing is simply impossible.

The current situation means that we are wasting golden opportunities to use social networks for marketing our conferences. Ponzu has limited support as of now, and will be improved to provide top-class social sharing.

Participants should be able to enter their own SNS accounts

In Ponzu, participants could enter their own SNS accounts such as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Read & ResearchMap. We hope that this will help researchers to become more connected and more collaborative.

We believe that this was yet another first for a conference program.


We believe strongly that the scientific community should embrace social networks to enhance collaboration. Conferences, being social in nature, are an ideal place to trigger that trend. However, there are some roadblocks that are preventing this.

One particularly large roadblock is the focus on native applications for smartphones. Unless accompanied by a mobile website, these applications can actually prevent participants from spreading information to their network. We have to take this into consideration when choosing our mobile platforms.

A design that respects the authors work

The previous designs for conference programs showed no respect for the hard work of the authors. Abstracts were treated simply as entries in a database. We strongly object to this and propose that conference programs should be designed with the same care as printed academic journals.

Example of bad design

  • Abstracts are treated as database fields.
  • All the font sizes and styles are the same. Important information (titles, number) should have a larger font size, while affiliations should be smaller (as is typical in a printed journal).
  • As discussed in “Multi-lingual support”, displaying both English and Japanese next to each other makes it harder for readers to quickly read the content and should be avoided.

2011 presentation

Ponzu design

Below is the design for MBSJ2012.

  • The design is based on top printed journals.
  • Font sizes, styles and colors are used to make each element easily identifiable.
  • Important information (title, number) is in larger font sizes.
  • A two column layout is used so that readers do not have to move their eyeballs long distances.

MBSJ2012 design 2


Historically very little effort was put in the design of conference programs. It is time for this to change.

Don’t let technology divide people

Our concept for the IT-plan was to connect scientists through Information Technology. However, as the often used word “digital divide” signifies, IT can also separate people.

There are limits to what technology can do to prevent a “digital divide”. Still, we thought that it was our duty to do what we can to support people on the other side of the “divide” so that they would be encouraged to come to the IT-rich side.

What we did

  1. We supported as many devices as possible.
  2. We used IT to provide a better reading experience even for the PDFs.

Our recommendations

  1. Do as much as possible to support the late majority.
  2. Even if you can’t support them fully, try to make life better for even the laggards.

Managing Authors and Participants

Throughout the whole history of scientific conferences, the focus has been on the presentations; what people are going to say. We thought differently.

Whereas journals focus on scientific advancements, we think that conferences should focus on people; the authors, the audience, the critics, the competitors, the collaborators, the mentors, the students and the supporters. The unique fun and excitement of conferences is the result of these people meeting face to face and having headed discussions. If this is what conferences are all about, then the program should focus on the people. By doing this, we should be able to open up a huge number of possibilities on how conferences could enhance human interaction.

Extracting people from the program

Traditionally, authors have been a simple text attribute of each presentation. Our first task was to assign and ID to each author, and to find out which authors were actually the same person. We did this with Nayose.

Future directions

In the future, we might require all co-authors to be entered together with their work email address.

What this has enabled

Recommended presentations

We used author information to provide a list of related presentations. To our knowledge, this is the first time that anyone has done this for a conference.


Supporting participants’ workflows

To understand how to create a great conference system, we have to clearly understand what a participant will want to do prior to the conference, at the conference and after the conference.

Conference IT systems should adjust to the needs and devices that scientists possess. Scientist should not be forced to own certain devices simply to access conference information. The IT systems should be there to help, not rule over the scientists.

We realize that while 100% of scientists have a laptop computer, much fewer own smartphones and even less own tablet PC devices. We recognize that scientists are not necessarily tech-geeks and many will not purchase new fads. There will be “laggards” in the high-tech device sense, but these “laggards” are often the scientists who have a large presence and saying in the scientific community.

We also acknowledge that even though tech-savvy scientists will want to use smartphones or iPads at the conference floor, they will still use traditional PCs in their planning phase at their office. Hence the IT system should seamlessly sync whatever they did on their laptops to their smartphones.

Therefore, an IT system for scientific conferences must work well with laptop computers, and also accomodate new gadgets. Focusing on new gadgets at the expense of laptops is not an option.

Unfortunately, this is contrary to what a lot of conferences are providing.

Looking at competitor activity, it seems that their priorities are;

  1. Provide a native smartphone application.
  2. Provide a rudimentary web site for PCs.
  3. Congre uniquely provides syncing between the PC site and smartphone apps.
  4. Provide a iMode site (only Congre).

Our priorities are;

  1. Provide a cutting-edge experience on PCs so that they can do their preparations effectively.
  2. Attendees can chose whether they want to bring smartphones, tablets PCs, iMode phones or printouts to the conference.
  3. We support smartphones, tablets, PCs, iMode phones on-site.
  4. After the event, they can go back to their PCs and create a report.