Information Design Watch

August 31, 2006, 2:13 pm

Your Blog, Coffee-Table Version

By Henry Woodbury

Blurb.com is testing a service that “slurps your blog right into a slick coffee-table book, professionally designed and bound to attract attention.” The goal, says Blurb CEO Eileen Gittins, is “to position Blurb authors at the forefront of an increasingly digital publishing landscape.”

Economics professor Tyler Cowen is unimpressed:

Translating good blog ideas into book format is best done by people who…have experience writing books, or who have journalistic experience, not by people who have large staplers.

It’s hard to take the Blurb “position” seriously enough even to knock it. Sounds like Blurb has some cool publishing technology, but when your output is business briefs, baby books, and pet portfolios you’re not exactly competing with HarperCollins.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Business, Technology

August 30, 2006, 2:30 pm

A Visual Re-telling of the 9/11 Story

By Lisa Agustin

9/11 graphic novelThe 9/11 Commission Report is now available as a graphic novel. Two veteran comic book creators, Ernie Colon and Sid Jacobson, undertook the task of graphically translating the 600-page volume in an effort to make it more accessible to anyone interested in understanding the findings and their significance. The project was inspired by Colon’s attempt to read the original report which was “well-written, but [made] times, places, and names hard to track.” According to its creators, The 9/11 Report, A Graphic Adaptation is not a sensationalized, dumbed-down comic book, but “graphic journalism” that quotes directly from the report, and aims to be non-partisan and respectful in its visual retelling. As Colon notes, “We’re in the business of clarification.”

From a personal perspective, I’ll admit that I’ve often thought that the Commission’s report is a must-read, not only for its historical importance, but because of its implications for our near future. But its length and density can make it seem inaccessible. Presenting the report’s findings and recommendations in this way will hopefully make it easier for a broader audience to understand, giving further proof of the power visual explanations can have in telling the most complex of stories.

To hear an interview with the authors on NPR’s “Talk of the Nation,” see: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5690970

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Books and Articles, Visual Explanation

August 24, 2006, 12:28 pm

The Sketching Collective

By Lisa Agustin

I’m in the midst of crafting an information architecture (IA) for one of our projects. At our studio, doing this is very much a collaborative process. An information architect or analyst comes up with the approach, then works closely with the design team to render this visually using an IA diagram. There’s a translation phase, accompanied by a creative back-and-forth on how best to present the desired information structure.

The Bachelor sketchOddly, I was reminded of this process by a fun site I came across: SwarmSketch.com. This is an “ongoing online canvas that explores the possibilities of distributed design by the masses.” A visitor may contribute a single, continuous line to a titled sketch-in-progress, then vote on the opacity of the existing lines of others to moderate their input. The darkness of any given line is the average of its previous votes.

It seemed a bit like passing around an Etch-A-Sketch.

Probably the best part about it is not the process of adding to the online design or voting on others’ inputs, but the ability to see the progress of the drawing over time. (Be sure to view the gallery of previous drawings. At right: “The Bachelor.”)

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Creativity, Illustration, Social Media

August 21, 2006, 9:59 am

Politics Plays on YouTube

By Henry Woodbury

Digital video and a place to publish it means political gaffes don’t fade away. Instead, they show up on YouTube for endless replay. In addition to capturing the unscripted errors of politicians, partisans can piece together candidate quips with other images and post their own mini-biopics — supportive or not.

The debate among political analysts is whether Internet video will make public figures even more preprogrammed, or whether it will encourage them to loosen up, show their personalities, and communicate more directly.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Current Events, Technology

August 16, 2006, 8:08 pm

Medical Products and the User-Centric Experience

By Lisa Agustin

This week’s Innovation column in BusinessWeek Online features an interview with Stuart Karten, principal of Stuart Karten Design, an industrial design firm known for its user-centric approach to product design. The interview focuses specifically on Karten’s experience designing medical products, including a bone marrow biopsy needle, an infant ventilator, and a defibrillator.

Karten’s approach to medical product design extends beyond form following function, taking into account not only the product itself, but the context in which it will be used. On the question of what makes for a successful defibrillator, Karten notes:

What we realized is the actual frequency of use is really low, but when you have to use one, your adrenaline is pumping and you’re in a very highly charged state. So the ability to educate prior to use is important, and in this case we’re designing a public defibrillator, so we’re thinking about it like a public health service announcement.

Karten’s research techniques are familiar ones to information design practitioners, and include interviews and direct observation of the user interacting with the object (user testing, anyone?). It’s yet another example of how understanding and improving the user experience is the key to creating a successful product.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Business, Technology, Usability

August 11, 2006, 2:44 pm

Visualizing Algebra

By Chris Jackson

My daughters aren’t old enough to experience the joys of algebra yet, but when they are I plan to revisit Oliver Steele’s blog for some inspired thinking on how to explain algebra visually. Steele’s post Visualizing Basic Algebra begins with line drawings representing the associative property for addition:
Associative Property Illustration

and the commutative property for addition:
Commutative Property Illustration

He then illustrates the commutative, distributive, and associative properties for multiplication using squares and cubes. These illustrations could be recreated on a kitchen table with building blocks; they’re tactile (unlike algebra). By making the conceptual visual, they provide that “Yes, I see it now!” moment.

Steele’s post continues by showing visualizations for some more complex algebra concepts: the Product of Alternates, Triangle Numbers, and this one for the Difference of Squares, which states that the difference between perfect squares always is odd:
Difference of Squares Illustration

Steele’s visualizations result from his asking the question, “What would a proof that stayed grounded in visuospatial concepts look like?” In a few years, when one of my daughters grapples with her first algebra problem, I plan to ask her, “What might the problem look like?”

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Comments (1) | Filed under: Visual Explanation

August 11, 2006, 9:46 am

Reverse-Engineering Utopia

By Lisa Agustin

It’s time to catch up on summer reading. The Knowledge@Wharton site offers an excerpt from Idealized Design: How to Solve Tomorrow’s Crisis…Today, in which authors Russell L. Ackoff, Jason Magidson, and Herbert J. Addison propose what seems to be a simple idea: “the way to get the best outcome is to imagine what the ideal solution would be and then work backward to where you are today.” According to the authors, this “ensures that you do not erect imaginary obstacles before you even know what the ideal is.”

The book is based on the collective experiences of the authors. Ackoff’s seminal experience began on a side trip he took in 1951 to visit an acquaintance at Bell Labs. While there, he inadvertently became part of an all-hands meeting called to innovate the telephone communications system–a system that had not introduced a revolutionary contribution since 1900.

Tasked with improving the system as a whole rather than its individual parts, the six sub-system teams were instructed to design whatever integrated system they wanted, subject to only two constraints: technological feasibility and operational viability.

Interestingly, Ackoff noted that after his involvement ended and these design teams continued their work:

They anticipated every change in the telephone system, except two, that has appeared since then. Among these are touch-tone phones, consumer ownership of phones, call waiting, call forwarding, voice mail, caller ID, conference calls, speaker phones, speed dialing of numbers in memory, and mobile phones. They did not anticipate photography by the phone or an Internet connection.

Ackoff’s description of how the teams approached this challenging task contained two elements worth noting: an early phase of analyzing existing system problems and establishing users’ needs or requirements, and then working with each sub-system team to get a better understanding of how suggested improvements would impact the larger system. Above all, this approach reveals that creative thinking combined with a rigorous analytical process can result in big changes.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Books and Articles, Business, Technology

August 10, 2006, 1:58 pm

Animations, Small Multiples and Alex Rodriguez

By Henry Woodbury

Baseball fans may be interested in this analysis of Alex Rodriguez’s current power dropoff.

Visual explanation fans may be interested in swing instructor Jeff Albert’s use of video clips (in the form of animated gifs) and small multiples to support his analysis. The video clip discussion, focused on subtle differences in hip rotation, is fairly technical. More interesting, visually, is Albert’s use of spray charts as small multiples. A spray chart is a scale diagram of a ballpark with a player’s hitting denoted by location and outcome (g for groundout, f for flyout, s for single, h for home run, etc.). Presenting spray charts from 2002 to 2006 (2004-2006 reproduced below), Albert shows that Rodriguez’s home run sprays look different when he is hitting better.

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Comments (2) | Filed under: Sports, Visual Explanation

August 3, 2006, 10:23 am

Should AJAX Wireframes be Different?

By Henry Woodbury

Kevin Hale at Particletree has a pair of articles on prototyping and wireframing AJAX applications. These are excellent primers for web designers interested in working with AJAX developers. I learned some CSS details that will help me out. However, I think Hale misses one key point of prototyping and wireframing almost entirely.

That point is risk management. When a design is still under review, when process steps are still being determined, box wireframes and bitmap design comps allow an information architect and designer to develop ideas quickly and revise or even abandon them with minimal pain. At Dynamic Diagrams we prefer to avoid coding designs until we have agreement on all the major elements of the interface. If we can do at least some usability testing with bitmaps, that’s even better.

But what of the demands of the interactive AJAX-driven interfaces that Hale describes? One risk-free way to show AJAX interactivity is to present work you’ve already done, perhaps from your own development library. Once stakeholders agree about the types of interactivity they want, an actual interface can almost always be modeled as a sequence of static wireframes, convertible to static bitmaps: Here are the elements at point x; Here they are at point y. More useful than a working prototype at this stage may be a workflow diagram that shows an entire sequence of steps in one view:

Process Diagram Example

This diagram shows the interaction of different user types with a help ticket, describes when that object changes status (open, under review, closed), and identifies which pages in the process have multiple functions — crucial information for an AJAX developer to understand.

All this said, there (usually) comes a time when a project advances beyond wireframes and design comps to coding and development. At this point, for the web designers working with AJAX developers, Hale’s advice makes a lot of sense.

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Comments (1) | Filed under: Implementation, Information Architecture

August 1, 2006, 9:02 am

Podcasting, Literally

By Henry Woodbury

Wave sounds plotted to a cylindrical coordinate systemThe New York Times has a story today on the visualization of whale songs by engineer Mark Fischer:

Mr. Fischer creates visual art from sound using wavelets. Once relatively obscure, wavelets are being used in applications as diverse as JPEG image compression, high definition television and earthquake research, said Gilbert Strang, a math professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and an expert on wavelets.

They are popular now in part because they can capture intricate detail without losing the bigger picture, and when presented in circular form (using a cylindrical coordinate system), repeated patterns are even more evident.

While the images have the candylike quality of� iTune’s “Visualizer” they may have practical application in identifying particular whale species and even individual whales. The patterns may also help researchers identify meaning and grammer in whale communication.

On Fischer’s web site, aguasonic.com,� he links to still images and� movies, such as this visualization of the song of a Northeast Pacific Blue.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Visual Explanation