Design and the decentralization of web content

Websites are the predominant platform for most of the information we absorb. Of course, the site itself isn’t always the primary vehicle, with RSS having established itself as an alternate form of consumption, and search engines offering a similar yet broader form of aggregation. This has lead to two main content experiences. In one mode, content is presented in context of the full offering, as part of a structural framework reflecting the identity of the source. In the other, content is represented generically and modularly alongside content from other sources.

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Thoughts on universal design / 1 comment

I recently spoke to a student about the goals of the One Laptop per Child user interface, and was surprised at how difficult it was to answer the question as to how I felt about taking a ‘universal’ design approach. I was quick to defend my belief in universal design as a means by which to broaden access to, or appreciation of, any designed object, acknowledging that design is necessarily subjective. Yet on further reflection, is universality ever achievable? Is it presumptuous, as designers, to think that we could design an interface that would be universally understandable?

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Visualization as navigation / 1 comment

Stamen Design, Digg Labs Big Spy Visualization

Stamen Design, Digg Labs Big Spy Visualization

Following the train of thought from Browsing informal hierarchies, this post investigates visualization as navigation. When can navigation double as visualization and provide the user with visual cues reflecting the organization of content on a web site or another digital media device? Already in use on many web sites, informal hierarchies have the potential to replace the widely used static, tabular navigation and its often arbitrarily determined categories with a more flexible and adaptive device, one which not only is more effective in orienting users within a particular hierarchy, but is also an iconic representation of the web site itself, providing a distinct visual identity which people will recognize.

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Beyond the desktop metaphor / 2 comments

As an extension of the self, the avatar, which (despite the slightly outmoded term) remains a familiar concept from the world of gaming, could become a new paradigm for operating system interfaces. Three tendencies may contribute to this paradigm shift. First, computers are becoming increasingly mobile. Not only are laptops outselling desktops, they are also becoming smaller and lighter. Second, computers are becoming more ubiquitous: computer operating systems are increasingly powering other devices as well, such as cell phones, PDAs and music players. Third, networks are becoming pervasive, allowing more communication between connected mobile computing devices.

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Browsing informal hierarchies / 2 comments

Informal or soft hierarchies have become popular mechanisms for data storage and retrieval, as seen in applications such as Flickr,, and others. What differentiates soft from hard hierarchies is the use of overlapping categories, or tags, instead of namespaces. Tags can be used to describe more than one object, and hence they will appear in various contexts (a context consisting of a group of tags).

Tags are used to help find objects which have something in common. They connect to objects, as well as other tags—applications such as surface tags which are used in context of the one which is currently selected. As a filtering and sorting device, they have proven to be exceptionally useful.

The problem with tags is that their usefulness as a browsing device decreases, the higher the number of tagged objects. Browsing, unlike filtering, should not inherently narrow down results, yet it often does. In very large arrays, selecting a single tag will still yield a multitude of results, results which must be browsed linearly—a fairly tedious process in large lists. Typically, results can be narrowed further by incrementally adding tags to filter by. However, apart from pivoting on a single tag, a more effective browsing method might entail pivoting on a group of tags, centered around an object.

Consequently, pivoting on an object would yield a mechanism by which to browse related objects, as connected by their individual tags. For instance, an algorithm would attempt to match all tags of an object. These results would turn up first-degree related objects. Then, it would begin looking incrementally for tags related to one of the pivot tags, by increasing degree of separation. It might systematically look for pivot tags with the least matches, replacing them with second-degree tags with the most matches. Because the the algorithm is exclusionary, it would conceivably lend itself well to browsing large arrays of tagged objects.

How is this different from the Amazon or iTunes ‘related items’ model? The (subtle) difference is navigation. The typical browsing experience starts with a large pool of objects, filters down incrementally to a single object, and then connects back to a pool of related objects. On the other hand, my proposed navigation would remain ‘high-level’—sorting and rearranging objects based on their semantic relatedness. It doesn’t narrow down, but remains open, simply shifting the focus in relation to the pivot object.

As a design construct, this method offers interesting opportunities for visualization, based on the degree of relatedness between objects. It may also have potential for use in operating systems, as a way to browse large collections of data by means of an exploratory, object-centered navigation.