Collaborative Development of a Uniform Graphical Interface Debra S. Ketchell, Shernilynne S. Fuller Health Sciences Library and Information Center, SB-55

Matthew M. Freedman, Edward M. Lightfoot Information Systems, Computing & Communications, JE-41 University of Washington, Seattle, WA 98195

but comprehensive interface in 1989 when a local MEDLINE database became operational. The database search engine was powerful but utilized a combination of menus and commands, and previous users of the Grateful Med and other search software asked for a "friendlier" front-end. It was clear that while a port of Grateful Med was possible, it did not address larger concerns at the University of Washington, including: health professionals in their multiple roles as researchers, teachers, students, clinicians and administrators; disparate full-text, bibliographic and image databases on disparate CD-ROM and local and remote networks with different operating systems; and a visually pleasing and useful interface rather than a single workstation implementation.

ABSTRACT A uniform graphical user interface to informational databases is evolving at the University of Washington through a collaborative development process. The interface, called WILLOW, has grown from model analysis and preliminary design to working prototype. The design replicates a natural flow of search retrieval. Development continues in a spiral of test and linear improvements based on user analysis.

WILLOW's internal structure is built on a Unix clientserver model communicating over the campus TCP/IP backbone network. Its external structure is an X-Windowsl Motif visual presentation emphasizing a simple, consistent, graphical face to disparate information databases. The WILLOW collaborators have grown from an initial group composed of the Health Sciences Library & Information Center and Computing & Communications' Information Systems to the University Libraries, Computing & Communications divisions, Medical Center Information Systems, and departments throughout the health sciences.

An innovator's grant from the Digital Equipment Corporation partially funded the development of the initial prototype. Programming and networking to make these ideas into a working prototype led to a collaborative project between campus Computing & Communications and the HSLIC. In this paper we describe the collaborative development of the prototype interface, called WILLOW (Washington Information Looker-upper Layered Over Windows).



The state of modem information handling is neither open nor unified. It is frequently cumbersome and complicated. A trip to most health sciences libraries confirms this: a mixture of local mainframe, CD-ROM and Intemet databases with a mixture of search retrieval engines tied to a variety of operating systems and usually accessed by character-based interfaces with a series of hierarchical, function-oriented menus. The same picture is painted for most other informational databases in an academic health sciences center. In many medical centers efforts are being made to develop an automated menu to a large number of disparate systems, to develop a single integrated workstation for a limited number of databases, to develop an interface with full functionality for a limited number of databases or to develop links between clinical systems and a single database. [1-7]

A "simple" interface should allow a user to enter a question with a few words or phrases (with a vocabulary assistant for databases with a controlled thesaurus), receive an answer to that question in a brief display of matched results, examine the results and redefine the question as needed, and view the final results. [8] A "comprehensive" interface should allow a user to search disparate databases with a uniform search query method. Unlike the Wide Area Infornation Server (WAIS) search engine [9], it would accommodate the full functionality of each database and its search engine with a "family" of search templates. Specific design objectives were to:

Replicate a natural flow of search retrieval though the use of multiple windows rather than hierarchical, function-oriented menus.

The University of Washington Health Sciences Library & Information Center (HSLIC) staff first considered a simple 0195-4210/92/$5.00 ©)1993 AMIA, Inc.



Increase productivity and reduce training for novice and advanced searchers through the use of point-andclick rather than commands (recognition over recall); and use the graphical metaphors of familiar MS-DOS Windows, Macintosh and X-Windows programs.


Increase exploration and learning of advanced capabilities of sophisticated databases through the use of pull-down menus rather than arcane commands.


Increase the precision and recall of search retrieval by providing a subject dictionary for databases with controlled vocabulary.


Increase usability of a rich environment of disparate informational sources on a variety of computer platforms through a flexible and transportable search interface rather than a specific workstation or a specific search engine.


Make the search retrieval experience pleasurable or interesting to insure continued use.


Comply with campus standards for hardware and software.

ERIC) by clicking the icon or choosing from the Search window title bar. Subject terms can be quickly looked up and copied from the dictionary window and pasted on a search line for databases with controlled vocabulary. A search query (a snapshot of the search window) may be saved by name and retained in named groups for re-use. A different database can be used for the current query in the Search window by simply selecting it from the database menu and clicking the search button.

Brief summaries or full records may be printed or saved to a file by clicking the appropriate button. A default printer (attached or remote) may be configured for each WILLOW server. The save button is user configurable at any time. Save options include saving to an e-mail account (including e-mail to be printed and mailed to a campus address) or via FT? to any IP or machine address on the Internet. The prototype also allows for a complicated search query to be built using multiple search lines and the field buttons. If a database allows, "adjacency" is assumed between words on a line while "and" is assumed between lines. All other available Boolean or positional operators may be used on a line. Buttons to the left of each line are pull-down to allow the user to limit to a query line to a database field (e.g., title, major subject, author). Common limits customized for each particular database are click boxes (e.g., English only, Human only, in MEDLINE).


WILLOW is composed of four windows which appear in a natural flow during the search retrieval process (Figure 1). The Search window is the anchor with all other windows appearing as icons until they are called into use. All windows may be iconified or resized at any time.


WILLOW complies with campus standards: Unix operating system, client-server computing, and TCP/IP protocols. The technical architecture is designed to be transportable and flexible. It can be configured to interact with most retrieval systems over a TCP/IP network.

The flow of WILLOW is rapid entry of a query, rapid review of initial results, iterative editing to redefine the query and quick printing or saving of relevant matches. First, a database is chosen from the database menu on the Search window. A query is entered on the search line(s). Clicking the search button starts a search. The Summaries window appears when the search is complete. Titles and the matching summary are available for review as they begin appearing. Review of a large group of titles is quickly accomplished using scroll bars and mouse clicks. A brief summary for the highlighted title appears in the lower section of this window. Double-clicking a title, or clicking the full record button, retrieves the full information for that title in the Full Record window. The user can thus quickly see the results of a query even if a large number of "hits" is retrieved. WILLOW also simplifies manual relevancy feedback. Subject headings, free text words, journals, authors and other text from either the summaries or full record windows can be copied/pasted back to a search query line and the search rerun with a few clicks.

WILLOW was prototyped on a DEC 3100 running the Ultrix operating system. The WILLOW interface itself is a Unix application built with the Motif tool-kit, which is layered on top of the X-Windows system. It is set up via the Motif User Interface Language rather than in C language code. Thus, it is relatively easy to change the look of the interface. Database drivers, loosely based on the concept of Unix device drivers, contain all the information about a particular database (e.g., contents of the search window template and subject dictionary, how to make the connection, details of the command syntax and how to parse the incoming screens of data). Since the configuration for each database is separate, the source code for WILLOW itself is not affected when databases are added, deleted or modified.

The appropriate subject dictionary appears (e.g., Medical Subject Headings for MEDLINE, the ERIC Thesaurus for

Like all X programs, WILLOW is event-driven. XWindows events go to WILLOW from the user via


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a broader Libraries evaluation, thirty walk-in users were asked to complete a questionnaire during the second week in May. Of those surveyed: 60% had mouse and windows and some database retrieval experience; 60% felt it was easy to very easy to use, while 15% felt it was difficult to very difficult to use; 54% felt they could look at the screen and know what to do, while 7% felt they could not determine what to do by looking at the screen. The features most "liked" were the graphics, the flexibililty and the speed. The problems most encountered included printing, the pause button and initial help in getting started. This user experience led to an immediate correction of printing and pausing problems, and work is underway to complete a graphical "getting started" and database help to be in place by October 1992. Additional databases anticipated by the end of 1992 include INSPEC, PsycLit and the University of Washington Handbook.

keyboard and mouse. WILLOW in turn sends X-Windows graphics commands to the screen. Words can be transferred from the subject dictionary, summaries or full record window via the X-Windows paste process, and retrieved results can be sent to any standard X program. WILLOW and the database driver programs send each other packets over a Unix pipe. The driver programs in turn communicate with individual databases via telnet over a Unix pipe. WILLOW can only communicate with a single driver at any given time. A more detailed description of WILLOW's architecture and configuration is available.

[10] EVALUATION & IMPLEMENTATION Prototype Evaluation The prototype of WILLOW provided access to a campus MEDLINE database searched via a customized version of the BRS/Search retrieval software. It was tested by a small group in the health sciences (9 faculty and 6 librarians) from October-December 1990. A "watch them use it" and "ask them what they think" survey was employed. Due to the lack of X-Windows compatibility, most testers used equipment in the library. All such experiences were compiled and changes made to the interface based on linear improvement of productivity.

Health Sciences Center Implementation Concerned about the need for a broader distribution platform to reach faculty offices and clinics, HSLIC tested various X-Windows emulation software for MS-DOS, Macintosh and NEXT computers in 1991-92. MacX on a Macintosh proved an early viable alternative to Xterminals, as Macintosh computers are widely used in the health sciences and MacX is available at no charge under a campus site license. eXcursion, an X-emulator used with DEC Pathworks and Microsoft Windows, and coXist, an Xemulator for the NEXT computer, have also proved successful in accomodating new test users. An optimal Xemulator for DOS LANs has been investigated but not implemented.

Testing confirmed that faculty with graphical user interface (GUI) experience learned the interface quickly and moved on to exploring sophisticated features; however, faculty with only character-based interface (CUI) experience required a longer learning curve to use the interface. This is consistent with studies comparing the GUI and CUI interfaces. The Temple study [11] concluded that time spent learning the interface would be higher for a GUI, but once that initial time had been invested, the self-learning and internalization would be significantly higher as familiarity increased. In general, the faculty found the interface "fun" and immediately wanted it available on their desktop computer.

Expanding the computer platform, the HSLIC increased the cadre of health sciences faculty and staff testers to 25 by June 1992. In addition, the HSLIC is working with the Schools of Nursing, Dentistry and Public Health, and the Medical Center for them to provide a WILLOW server on their own hardware. A comprehensive evaluation of the usability of the interface by clinical faculty, residents, researchers and teaching faculty in their offices and clinics will be completed in the fall of 1992.

Libraries Implementation After prototype testing, the University of Washington Libraries chose WILLOW as the GUI for future local database access. Test versions of WILLOW during 199192 added the ERIC, Online Catalog and Grolier's Encyclopedia databases. The need for a walk-up WILLOW workstation initiated a broader collaborative implementation team from a variety of divisions of the UW Libraries and Computing & Communications. This team developed a public version of WILLOW based on DEC 5000 servers and NCD X-terminal clients. Programming to provide "stateless" authentication (no login or password required) and a license manager were also completed in 1991.

WILLOW is an integral part of IAIMS planning at the University of Washington Health Sciences Center. [12] Discussion on the usability of WILLOW as an interface for patient discharge data is underway. The Department of Biological Structure is considering WILLOW as an interface to its Digital Anatomist program, which includes an anatomical images database. Other enhancements resulting from the IAIMS planning include pull-down menus for advanced searching of sophisticated databases, automated relevancy feedback ("more like this one"), value ranking of results, a UMLS subject dictionary (as both a stand-alone database and for use with other databases), and new bibliographic and full-text databases on CD-ROM and over the Internet, particularly in the areas of drug information, clinical handbooks and biotechnology

This public version of WILLOW was placed in the HSLIC and five other sites as a pilot test in May 1992. As part of





Through the collaborative efforts of librarians, programmers, network engineers and faculty, a graphical interface mimicking the natural iterative flow of the search retrieval process has evolved at the University of Washington. The WILLOW interface meets the design criteria of compatibility with campus standards, extensibility to disparate informational databases and making the search retrieval experience faster, better and more pleasurable. It serves as a viable prototype to a uniform interface to disparate informational databases for researchers, clinicians, students, teachers and administrators in the Health Sciences Center and campuswide.







Broering NC, Bagdoyan H, Hylton J, Rosansky J. A a system demonstration of BioSYNTHESIS: integration tool for multiple databases. Proceedings of the Fourteenth Annual Symposium on Computer Applications in Medical Care 1990; 961-64. 2 Cimino C, Bamett GO. Standardizing Access to Computer-Based Medical Resources. Proceedings of the Fourteenth Annual Symposium on Computer Applicatons in Medical Care 1990; 33-37. 3 Loonsk JW, Lively R, TinHan E, Litt H. Implementing the medical desktop: tools for the integration of independent information resources. Proceedings of the Fifteenth Annual Symposium on Computer Applications in Medical Care 1991; 574-77. 1

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Stead W. Systems for the year 2000: the case for an integrated database. MD Comput 1991 Mar-Apr, 8(2): 103-10. Powsner SM, Miller PL. From patient reports to bibliographic retrieval: a Meta-1 front-end. Proceedings of the Fifteenth Annual Symposium on ComputerApplications in Medical Care 1991; 526-30. Lucier RE, Matheson NW, Butter KA, Reynolds RE. The knowledge workstation: an electronic environment for knowledge management. Bull Med Libr Assoc 1988 Jul;76(3):248-55. Lorenzi NM, Marks EB. University of Cincinnati Medical Center. integrating information. Bull Med LibrAssoc 1988 Jul;76(3):231-36. Marchionini G. Interfaces for end-user information seeking. JAm Soc InfSci 1992 Mar, 43(2): 156-63. Kahle B, Morris H, Davis F, Teine K, Hart C, Palmer R. Wide area information servers: an executive information system for unstructured files. Electronic Networking 1992 Spr, 2(1): 59-68. Freedman M. WILLOW: technical overview. Technical Report, May 1991. The benefits of the graphical user interface: a report of new primary research. Prepared by Temple, Barker & Sloane. Co-sponsored by Microsoft and Zenith Data Systems. 1990. Fuller SF. Creating the future: IAIMS planning premises at the University of Washington. Bull Med Libr Assoc 1992 Jul; 80(3): 288-93.

Collaborative development of a uniform graphical interface.

A uniform graphical user interface to informational databases is evolving at the University of Washington through a collaborative development process...
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