Scalable Intelligent Electronic Catalogs


The world today is full of information systems which make huge quantities of information available. This incredible amount of information is clearly overwhelming Internet endusers. As a consequence, intelligent tools to identify worthwhile information are needed, in order to fully assist people in finding the right information. Moreover, most systems are ultimately used, not just to provide information, but also to solve problems. Encouraged by the growing popular success of Internet and the enormous business potential of electronic commerce, e-catalogs have been consolidated as one of the most relevant types of information systems. Nearly all currently available electronic catalogs are offering tools for extracting product information based on key-attribute filtering methods. The most advanced electronic catalogs are implemented as recommender systems using collaborative filtering techniques. This dissertation focuses on strategies for coping with the difficulty of building intelligent catalogs which fully support the user in his purchase decision-making process, while maintaining the scalability of the whole system. The contributions of this thesis lie on a mixed-initiative system which is inspired by observations on traditional commerce activities. Such a conversational model consists basically of a dialog between the customer and the system, where the user criticizes proposed products and the catalog suggests new products accordingly. Constraint satisfaction techniques are analyzed in order to provide a uniform framework for modeling electronic catalogs for configurable products. Within the same framework, user preferences and optimization constraints are also easily modeled. Searching strategies for proposing the adequate products according to criteria are described in detail. Another dimension of this dissertation faces the problem of scalability, i.e., the problem of supporting hundreds, or thousands of users simultaneously using intelligent electronic catalogs. Traditional wisdom would presume that in order to provide full assistance to users in complex tasks, the business logic of the system must be complex, thus preventing scalability. SmartClient is a software architectural model that uses constraint satisfaction problems for representing solution spaces, instead of traditional models which represent solution spaces by collections of single solutions. This main idea is supported by the fact that constraint solvers are extreme in their compactness and simplicity, while providing sophisticated business logic. Different SmartClient architecture configurations are provided for different uses and architectural requirements. In order to illustrate the use of constraint satisfaction techniques for complex electronic catalogs with the SmartClient architecture, a commercial Internet-based application for travel planning, called reality, has been successfully developed. Travel planning is a particularly appropriate domain for validating the results of this research, since travel information is dynamic, travel planning problems are combinatorial, and moreover, complex user preferences and optimization constraints must be taken into consideration.