Mike Gotta provides an excellent description of the concept of context zones and how they allow us to deal with information in a way that reflects our needs, or as Mike puts it:
the right information, at the right time, in the right context, has been a holy grail for IT organizations for many years
In his article Mike describes 4 zones (my comments in red):
- Salient Zone: Information directly relevant to the activity that has the user’s attention and primary focus, or fits a user profile that includes topics the person is interested in (with an implied immediacy in terms of awareness and delivery timeliness). e.g. Project 1 – changes
- Peripheral Zone: Information that is strongly-to-moderately associated to a set of activities that the user participates in or to their profile (exclusive of the current activity). While there is likely discretion in terms of how and when the user needs to be aware of the information, there is an implied desire for it to be readily “glanceable”. e.g. Project 1 and Urgent
- Ambient Zone: Information users should find interesting but could just as easily ignore. The information could be tertiary, having a no strongly patterned relationship to any activity. But it also might have some intriguing synergy with, or some discernable influence on, activities or other user interests. Communication here is more informal, with user no guarantee that users will divert attention and interact with the information. Research
- Nascent Zone: information forming at its early stages that might have some latent relevancy in the future. Users might be interested in cycling through ever so often as part of general awareness and trend analysis. Email and general feeds
The problem with the single inbox concept for information is that it provides all 4 types of information in a single stream, and it’s very difficult to cope with this by constantly scanning this stream. Even when you apply methodologies like GTD, which force you to categorize email and other information it’s still difficult to see just the information you need in every particular context unless you are very organized.
RSS has a better chance than email because it arrives pre categorized, according to the feed title, which most aggregators use to deposit each feed in a separate folder. Even better most aggregators allow groups of feeds to be placed in additional folders. These groups of folders if structured around based on context will definitely help.
Consider the following folder structure:
- It allows me to click on Projects, and see all feeds from every project – useful for a daily activity scan.
- Click on Project 1 – changes and I am ready to focus on my Project change board meeting
The beauty of RSS is that once the structure is defined feeds look after themselves. In addition in tools like Outlook it’s also possible to use flags and search folders to create lists of actions, items, folders with items aggregated by author, by date etc.
IBM are also moving in the direction of context zones with the context being an Activity (for me see here and here), and their activity explorer being the tool I interact with. The activity concept is very powerful allowing me to associate RSS feeds, emails, IM messages, documents etc with an activity.
In addition there seems to be a general consensus amongst search gurus that search tools will soon be watching what we are doing, how busy we are, who we are talking too etc etc and will be presenting us – non intrusively but proactively - with the information we need from a wide variety of sources, transparently and without forcing us to interrupt we want to.