Information Design Watch

December 27, 2006, 12:39 pm

Wide Right

By Henry Woodbury

In the web coding world, “liquid” layout refers to the technique of setting column widths on a web page as percentages. This allows the interface to expand to fit the size of a user’s browser. Information Design Watch uses liquid layout.

The goal is to use all of the window real-estate possible for content while letting users retain control over presentation width. The problem with this goal is two-fold: First, users don’t necessarily want to resize their browsers as they link from one site to another. Second, with the increasing use of PDAs and wide-screen monitors, a liquid layout may be shrunk or expanded far out of the 800 to 1200 pixel range common to PC video-card configurations.

In this A List Apart article, Marc Van Den Dobbelsteen proposes an alternate solution: different style sheets for differently-sized screens. A simple JavaScript function detects the browser’s window width and loads a style sheet that resets the content layout appropriately. For example, a suite of three style sheets could be designed to handle very small windows (400px or less), a broad middle range (400 to 1024px), and very wide windows (1024 or greater).

This makes a lot of sense for Web sites known to have a PDA (or wide-screen) user base. However, like other stylesheet-switching techniques, implementation is the easy part. The challenges come before and after implementation — before, in increased design costs; and after, in the long-term maintenance of multiple stylesheets.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Web Interface Design

December 15, 2006, 10:27 am

Map of the Internet

By Lisa Agustin

IP Map of the InternetThe latest approach to visualizing the Internet space comes from former NASA researcher and sometime cartoonist Randall Munroe.

Munroe uses the Hilbert Curve fractal to preserve IP address grouping, showing how any consecutive string of IP addresses will translate into a single region on the “map.” Supporting comments on the visualization indicate that “the upper left section shows blocks of IP addresses sold to corporations and governments before the 1990′s before the RIRs [Regional Internet Registries] took over allocation.” It would be interesting to see how adding a dimension for time might affect the diagram. For more detail on his approach, check out the related blog entry.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Visual Explanation

December 14, 2006, 3:04 pm

Google Wins Patent for Search Results Interface Design

By Lisa Agustin

Those wishing to emulate the Google search results interface may need to think twice: this week the company won a patent for “the ornamental design for a graphical user interface.”

Interestingly, the patent is specifically a “design” patent, which means it covers only the invention’s appearance, rather than a “utility” patent, which covers the functions an invention performs. From an information design perspective, this notion of patenting a “look and feel” begs the question: when is imitating a design a form of flattery and when is it infringement? It depends, according to Phillip Mann, a Seattle-based patent attorney interviewed by CNET:

Google’s competitors need not worry about falling prey to costly lawsuits yet. That’s because it’s typically not easy for patent holders to win suits against alleged infringers of their designs, Mann said. Generally, the legal standard is that the accused infringer would have to employ a design that is “substantially the same” as the patent holder’s.

While it’s easy to guess why Google pursued protection of its design approach, obtaining a patent seems counter to the notion of what the Web is about– sharing and refining ideas, code, etc..  It will be interesting to see what effect (if any) this new protection has–not just on search engine interfaces, but on approaches to interface design in general.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Current Events, Design, Web Interface Design

December 14, 2006, 1:31 pm

Stock Chart Interface Design

By Henry Woodbury

The Yahoo and Google Finance pages both sport neat Flash-driven stock chart applications, worthy of comparison. Both show daily (or hourly) highs for a particular indexes, equities and mutual funds, allow you to specify a date range via a drag interface, and provide a variety of preset viewing options.

Google Chart, Dow Jones Industrial Average

One big difference between the two is the amount of historical data. Yahoo lets you track the Dow Jones Industrial Average back to the 1920s, offering the choice of a logarithmic or linear scale. On Google, while some individual stocks may take you back to the 1970s, the Dow Jones data starts in 2001.

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Comments (2) | Filed under: Visual Explanation, Web Interface Design

December 13, 2006, 3:02 pm

The Complexity Behind Simplicity

By Lisa Agustin

The idea of simplicity has been getting a lot of press lately, with the popularity of gadgets like the iPod and the release of thoughtful writings by folks like John Maeda.  Joel Spolsky offers his own take on the issue, suggesting that what makes “simple” products successful isn’t so much about what they are lacking, but more about what they encompass:

Devotees of simplicity will bring up 37signals and the Apple iPod as anecdotal proof that Simple Sells. I would argue that in both these cases, success is a result of a combination of things: building an audience, evangelism, clean and spare design, emotional appeal, aesthetics, fast response time, direct and instant user feedback, program models which correspond to the user model resulting in high usability, and putting the user in control, all of which are features of one sort, in the sense that they are benefits that customers like and pay for, but none of which can really be described as “simplicity.”

This brings to mind client requests for web site features that look clean and simple, but in fact are quite robust in their functionality.  (“Can you make it like Google?”)  Making something complicated is easy; making an elegant solution that addresses user needs, business goals, and content requirements–all while offering a positive user experience–is another matter.

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Comments (1) | Filed under: Business, Design

December 6, 2006, 10:57 am

Spamalot

By Henry Woodbury

Spam is back. According to this New York Times story (free registration required), existing filters are being fooled by “image spam,” in which telltale advertising phrases are presented in bitmaps instead of text. As antispam companies have added optical character recognition to their solutions, spammers have added speckles and dots to fool the scans.

To fool other spamblocking techniques, spammers have vastly expanded the practice of using viral “spambots” to send spam from the computers of unsuspecting users and have developed ways to give each copy of a spam message a unique digital “fingerprint.”

As for the stock tips you’ve been getting, here’s the scam:

Spammers buy the inexpensive stock of an obscure company and send out messages hyping it. They sell their shares when the gullible masses respond and snap up the stock. No links to Web sites are needed in the messages.

Though the scam sounds obvious, a joint study by researchers at Purdue University and Oxford University this summer found that spam stock cons work. Enough recipients buy the stock that spammers can make a 5 percent to 6 percent return in two days, the study concluded.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Technology