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New approach to designing visual notations

Best research paper award for University of Luxembourg scientist

University of Luxembourg


IMAGE: Dr. Patrice Caire is a research associate at the University of Luxembourg. view more

Credit: University of Luxembourg

A research paper proposing a novel approach to designing visual notations has won the « Best Research Paper award» at the worlds top conference in Requirements Engineering. The prize was presented at the 2013 Engineering Requirements Conference, held at the PUC-Rio in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil on July 19, 2013.

The paper « Visual Notation Design 2.0 : Towards User Comprehensible RE Notations», was written by Dr Patrice Caire, from the Interdisciplinary Centre for Security, Reliability and Trust (SnT) at the University of Luxembourg, in collaboration with Daniel Moody of Ozemantics, Australia, Prof. Patrick Heymans and his PhD student Nicolas Genon from Namur University.

A visual notation is a graphical representation. It consists of graphical symbols, their definitions, and a visual grammar. Some examples of graphical symbols are: lines, surfaces, volumes, textual labels and spatial relationships. These elements are used to build the visual vocabulary of a notation; Mind Maps for example, consist of lines and labels. Visual representations are effective because they convey information more concisely and precisely than language. They are also better remembered.

The success of requirement engineering (RE) depends critically on effective communication between business analysts and end users, yet emperical studies show that business stakeholders understand RE notations very poorly. This paper proposes a novel approach to designing RE visual notations that actively involves naive users in the process. Dr Caire use's i*, one of the most influential RE notations, to demonstrate this approach, but she argues that the same approach could be applied to any RE notation.

Dr Caire and her colleagues present the results of 5 related empirical studies that show that novices consistently outperform experts in designing symbols that are comprehensible to novices : the differences are both statistically significant and practically meaningful. Symbols designed by novices increased semantic transparency by almost 300% compared to the existing i* notation. The results challenge the conventional wisdom about visual notation design : that it should be conducted by a small group of experts.

The authors conclude that this approach is consistent with principles of Web 2.0, in that it harnesses the collective intelligence of end users and actively involves them in the notation design process as « prosumers » rather than as passive consumers. This approach has the potential to radically change the way visual notations are designed in the future.

Dr Caire works as a Research Associate in the SERVAL team, under Professor Yves Le Traon. The SnT targets research and PhD education in one of today's most important fields of ICT. SnT fosters interaction and collaboration with industrial, international, and governmental partners.


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