Information Design Watch

October 31, 2010, 6:52 pm

Maps and Legends

By Tim Roy

No, not a post about the REM song.  But I could not resist a brief mention of Axis Maps who has produced a beautiful mashup of two of our favorite things here at Dynamic Diagrams: maps and typography.  To date, the folks at Axis Maps have produced detailed typographic renderings of two cities: Boston and Chicago, but there are more in the works.

Map drawn using only typography

Detail of the Chicago map

The Boston map

Each map was hand-made, with type carefully overlaid on the existing cartographic structures.  Clearly these were a labor of love and the resulting work shows it.  See more at http://www.axismaps.com/typographic.php

(Thanks to Smashing Magazine for the tweet pointer to this great material)

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Maps, Typography

October 28, 2010, 9:31 am

Digital Camera Obscura

By Henry Woodbury

You walk into a dark room. As your eyes adjust, you realize that an image of the outside world appears on one wall; it is upside down, but in true color and perspective. The lens is a small hole in the opposite wall. The entire room functions as a pinhole camera that contains you as well.

Using the camera obscura artist Abelardo Morell projects images onto found surfaces then photographs them using a very long exposure. Here is the Brooklyn Bridge, taken from a Manhattan rooftop.

Morell created the shot by setting up a heavy dome-like tent on the top of the building with a periscope poking out of the top. The image projects down to the rooftop surface.

“It involves a huge amount of work to create something my daughter could make in Photoshop in two seconds,” Morell says. Morell is showing work this month at New York City galleries Bryce Wolkowitz and Bonni Benrubi.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Art, Creativity, Current Events

October 27, 2010, 6:57 am

A Small Taste of Design (Remodeling Dynamic Diagrams)

By Tim Roy

Poetry is emotion put into measure. The emotion must come by nature, but the measure can be acquired by art.
- Thomas Hardy

It has been a week since an update on the redesign of the Dynamic Diagrams website, but work has been progressing steadily behind the scenes.  Kirsten, the lead information architect on the project, has worked with the team to develop a solid set of functional and business requirements which have gone through several reviews.  With requirements now final, some slight changes have been made to the information architecture of the site itself, although the emphasis remains on the overall design.

One of the steps in creating an information architecture. Our site did not require this many Post-Its!

Wireframes are also complete and so the work has been turned over to Matt, who is the design lead.  It is not an enviable job, designing for a group who spend their days fully focused on all things visual.  Matt’s first decision was to use “web fonts“, an emerging standard that allows us to employ our company standard, Meta, without having to use (or maintain) image files.  This provides us with a tremendous degree of flexibility while still allowing us to create a consistent look and feel for Dynamic Diagrams.

A sample of Meta

Matt has produced a first draft of a design style and has received feedback from the working group.  This will result in a second version that will be presented to the entire Dynamic Diagrams staff sometime next week.  Despite the tough audience he will be facing, Matt can be assured that we will provide him with useful feedback (as opposed to the “I’ll know it when I see it” or “looks good, but can you make it blue?” nightmares that haunt all design professionals).  As reported earlier, the biggest change will be in providing a far wider and deeper range of work from our portfolio and Matt and Kirsten seem to have that well in hand.

A large format diagram from 1999.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Dynamic Diagrams News, Information Architecture, Typography

October 25, 2010, 3:49 pm

Requests from the Audience?

By Tim Roy

Over the past month, we have expanded the range of topics covered here on Information Design Watch.  By looking more broadly at art, museums, culture, and some of the earlier work at Dynamic Diagrams, we are discovering connections to our core focus of visual explanation and user experience that had not previously been considered.  We have also become much more active on both Twitter and Facebook with the intent of creating additional channels for expressing our ideas and interacting with both clients and peers.

Dynamic Diagrams has enjoyed its own share of exposure in years past.  We were featured in Richard Saul Wurman’s Information Architects, d/D founders Paul Kahn and Krzysztof Lenk created Mapping Web Sites, and the company was fortunate enough to contribute a chapter to Understanding USA, Richard Wurman’s book commemorating the 10th TED conference (TEDX).  Several of our friends and advisors have suggested we consider writing a new book and perhaps this work on the blog will help us to focus that idea.

More of this?

In the interim, we would like to hear from you, our readers, as to what areas you would like us to cover.  More pieces on museum interactives?  Continued coverage of terrific work in visualization?  Book reviews?  Interviews?  More work on presentation theory (I have a new piece on Shakespeare that I am almost ready to publish)?  I know that our coverage of user experience will certainly continue as we are constantly expanding our expertise in understanding user behavior and information design.

Or this?

The “Remodeling Dynamic Diagrams” series has a number of installments left and we are working to develop additional regular features.  And if the current eclectic mix of visualization, storytelling, user experience knowledge, and pointers to the fascinating work we come across is working well, let us know that too.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Dynamic Diagrams News, User Experience, Visual Explanation

October 24, 2010, 3:00 pm

Visualizing Scale at the Tate Modern

By Tim Roy

One of the most common requirements for our visualization work is to “show all the data at once”, a request made by clients who want to make certain that the audience is able to see the “whole” as well as the individual elements of which it is comprised.  We often explain the challenges associated with this: the inability to provide detail or context, the potential for disorientation, and the challenges associated with a large number of data points.  We have been fortunate enough to develop techniques for solving this business challenge and have been able to produce visualizations successfully presenting tremendous amounts of complex data.

It was for this reason I was drawn to a new exhibit at the Tate Modern in London: Ai Weiwei: Sunflower Seeds 2010.  This installation takes the idea of representing a large number of objects to new extremes.  The piece, on display at the Tate from 12 October 2010 to 2 May 2011, showcases 100 million hand-painted porcelain sunflower seeds.

100 million hand-painted porcelain sunflower seeds on display at the Tate Modern

Juliet Bingham, Curator at the Tate Modern commented:

“Ai Weiwei’s Unilever Series commission, Sunflower Seeds, is a beautiful, poignant and thought-provoking sculpture. The thinking behind the work lies in far more than just the idea of walking on it. The precious nature of the material, the effort of production and the narrative and personal content create a powerful commentary on the human condition. Sunflower Seeds is a vast sculpture that visitors can contemplate at close range on Level 1 or look upon from the Turbine Hall bridge above. Each piece is a part of the whole, a commentary on the relationship between the individual and the masses. The work continues to pose challenging questions: What does it mean to be an individual in today’s society? Are we insignificant or powerless unless we act together? What do our increasing desires, materialism and number mean for society, the environment and the future?”

While not a typical visualization (but then again, what is?), I was fascinated by the contrast between the scale of the overall work and the intricacy of the individual pieces.  More than 1600 artisans from the Chinese city of Jingdezhen, worked to produce this collection under the supervision of Ai Weiwei.  The results, while physically beautiful, also invite a far deeper intellectual inquiry about the idea of scale and presentation.  The accompanying video, despite its 14 minute length, is a fascinating study in the process and context for this project.

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Comments (1) | Filed under: Art, Visual Explanation

October 22, 2010, 4:46 pm

A Usability Test Facilitator is Like What?

By Kirsten Robinson

As I prepare for a week chock-full of usability testing, I’m remembering some of my favorite analogies for the role of a usability study facilitator.

Carolyn Snyder, in her excellent book, Paper Prototyping, describes three roles that must be fulfilled simultaneously:

Flight attendant: keep the test participant safe and comfortable. (Although, with airline seats getting smaller and job satisfaction for flight attendants decreasing, I’d have to say this may set too low a standard.)

Sportscaster: ensure the observers understand what’s going on.

Scientist: gather data accurately while minimizing bias.

But my favorite analogy comes from Joe Dumas, who taught me much of what I know about testing. Joe said a usability test facilitator is like a duck – you must appear calm and placid, but underneath the surface you’re paddling like crazy.

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Comments (2) | Filed under: Usability, User Experience

October 22, 2010, 4:18 pm

Interaction Costs in Visualization

By Kirsten Robinson

Tim sent me a link to an article on the Interaction Cost in Information Visualization this morning. After I recovered from my grad school flashback, I got to thinking about about the tradeoffs we have to make among decreasing the various “costs” discussed in the article. For example, my visual designer colleagues are really excellent at reducing the cost of visual clutter. Less visual clutter leads to improved perception. On the other hand, removing too many elements can increase the cost of decision — an extremely minimal interface may give too few clues to what an interactive system or visualization does.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Information Design, User Experience, Visual Explanation

October 20, 2010, 9:54 pm

Passion, Collaboration and Vision: A Recommended Book Review

By Tim Roy

Lois Kelly, a good friend to Dynamic Diagrams (and one of our peers here in Rhode Island), recently published a wonderful review of John Hagel’s new book The Power of Pull.  Lois recently heard Hagel speak and was so impressed with his talk that she read the book and authored this compelling analysis of the work.

The talk, given at the Business Innovation Factory’s BIF6 conference can be seen here:

For me, the key take-away from Lois’ review was the observation that the time-honored tradition of predicting demand for goods and services and then working to reduce costs, while creating profitable economies of scale is on its last legs.  The result: a mass exodus of talented and passionate individuals who seek a different model.  Lois writes:

“It will be fascinating to see whether big, push companies will evolve fast enough to retain the talents of those passionate people on a quest to do meaningful work within the confines of today’s corporate cultures, cultures that often value process and politics more than outcomes and new ideas. Or whether passionate people and the Gen Y generation will simply flee these organizations and create new types of organizations that fit how people love to work.”

Please take the time to read the full review: The strong attraction to “The Power of Pull”.  You won’t be disappointed.


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

October 19, 2010, 9:37 pm

Learning the Language of Experts (Remodeling Dynamic Diagrams)

By Tim Roy

In the early days of Dynamic Diagrams, Paul Kahn used to claim that we were “experts in doing things we had never done before.” While this often left prospective clients with puzzled looks on their faces as they considered the implications of this statement, to a degree it was true. This was, after all, the early 1990s, a time when the web was just emerging and information design and user experience were still relatively unknown. The idea of considering users or the information to be presented felt alien to most clients who had grown up on a steady diet of print layout or software interface design.

Site map for the first online version of the journal Nature

A 1997 web site created for West Publishing

Twenty years later, as we consider our new web presence, I stepped back to look at some of the work going on today. Our teams are currently busy on such projects as:

  • Visualizing research results from a maternal health project underwritten by the Gates Foundation
  • Creating a new user experience design for a major New England University
  • Developing interactive data presentations and dashboards for a Fortune 100 company
  • Refining the information architecture and visual design of a small section of an intranet we designed for a health service organization that had grown to over 15,000 employees
  • Producing a 2 minute animated video including development of a detailed 3D model for a major Los Angeles museum
  • Testing logo design and messaging for a publishing support company

We are still constantly exposed to new and exciting challenges in terms of information to be presented. For most of us, it is what makes the work rewarding: learning about subjects ranging from 17th century furniture construction, to dynamically sorting and presenting data contained in tens of millions of records, to understanding how today’s health care knowledge workers can be made more efficient in their daily lives. What is different though, is that while the information, the audience and the business goals change, we have developed a codified process that produces repeatable success.

With these tools in hand, we are lucky enough to be able to spend time with some of the leading experts in the world: aerospace engineers, chief medical officers, particle physicists, museum conservators, and technology product developers. In each case, we learn their language, their point of view, and begin to see the information they want to present from the inside out. Thinking way back to my own academic training at Hampshire College, we were taught to first and foremost consider the “mode of inquiry” when learning a new discipline. Many years later, this model still hold true, although perhaps what Paul should have told clients was that we were experts in doing things no one had ever done before. And he would have been right.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Dynamic Diagrams News, Information Design

October 16, 2010, 5:04 pm

Of Clocks and Time

By Tim Roy

The tech blog Gizmodo recently alerted us to a fascinating production featuring the Astronomical Clock in Prague’s Old Square.  Using a highly produced light projection system, combined with sound and image, the combined team from Macula, data-live and Tomato Productions effectively told the story of the 600 year old clock in a crowd-stopping 10 minute show.

Here at Dynamic Diagrams, we have our own fascination with clocks. Here are some images from our own production of a piece on Le Roy’s 1768 Marine Chronometer:



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Comments (0) | Filed under: 3D Modeling, Information Design

October 15, 2010, 12:22 pm

What Inspires Designers?

By Lisa Agustin

Perfect link for a Friday: Fast Company’s annual Masters of Design issue features a look at what inspires four of today’s top designers. Armed with a camera, each designer set out to capture sources of inspiration, ranging from pistachio shells and sea foam to traffic cones and subways.  I especially liked Erica Eden’s keen observations about how people (women in particular) move about in the world and the discomforts and annoyances we often take for granted.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Creativity, Design

October 14, 2010, 12:36 pm

Why it Doesn’t Feel Like a Recovery

By Lisa Agustin

The recession technically ended during the summer of 2009.  So why doesn’t it feel like it?  The Washington Post offers an interactive graphic illustrating why the economic recovery doesn’t feel like one. In a nutshell, it comes down to an “output gap, the divide between the amount the United States can produce and what it is actually producing,”  which is currently $900 billion.  The graphic does a good job of explaining step-by-step what this gap looks like under different economic conditions, and possible scenarios for reducing its size in the future.

(via FlowingData)

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Charts and Graphs

October 14, 2010, 11:44 am

Don’t Tweet the Scoop

By Henry Woodbury

I’m going to link you to a Bill Simmons football column at ESPN. Here we go.

If you’ve never encountered the Bill-Simmons-stream-of-consciousness style of sports writing before, you might wonder where I’m going. Ostensibly the column is about how Simmons accidentally tweeted a trade rumor involving wide receiver Randy Moss. And it is. But it also contains a host of interesting observations about how Twitter affects reporters, how a media company like ESPN responds, and the consequences of that interaction.

How does Twitter affect reporters?

Twitter, which exacerbates the demands of immediacy, blurs the line between reporting and postulating, and forces writers to chase too many bum steers.

How does ESPN handle that fact?

We have a rule at ESPN that all breaking news must be filtered through our news desk (not tweeted). That’s why our reporters (Schefter, Stein, Bucher, whoever) tweet things like, “JUST FILED TO ESPN: Timberwolves sign Frederic Weis to $35 million deal.” Even if I wanted to tweet something like the Moss scoop, technically, I couldn’t do it without flagrantly violating company rules.

What are the consequence?

In the Twitter era, we see writers repeatedly toss out nuggets of information without taking full ownership. It’s my least favorite thing about Twitter (because it’s wishy-washy) and one of my favorite things about Twitter (because nonstop conjecture is so much fun for sports fans)…. Call it “pseudo-reporting”: telling your audience that you think something happened or that you heard something happened, and somehow that sentiment becomes actual news.

The other thing Simmons points out: Don’t direct message and tweet at the same time.

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

October 13, 2010, 2:44 pm

Pizza and Success (Remodeling Dynamic Diagrams)

By Tim Roy

A committee is a cul-de-sac down which ideas are lured, then quietly strangled.

- Sir Barnett Cox

Our remodeling project got underway yesterday with our entire team meeting to discuss direction and goals.  The first order of business was to NOT form a committee.  Instead, we are approaching the work as if it was for a trusted client: assigning a project manager, information architect, designer, and web developer who will be with the project from start to finish.

Over a lunch of pizza from Bob and Timmy’s (our new Providence favorite) and my own eponymous salad from Rue Bis, we reviewed the ghosts of past d/D web sites and discussed how we might define success.  As a design consultancy, we have come to realize how challenging it is to succinctly describe our work.  There were some brief laments over how simple it must be to say one is a doctor or a lawyer or a butcher instead of having to launch into a description of information design, cognitive science, and user experience.

We soon realized, however, that our goals and the thorny problem of the simple description could be addressed with a single solution: showing off more of our work.  Over the past twenty years our portfolio has grown and we have hundreds and hundreds of examples that almost no one has seen.  Expect that to change when the new Dynamic Diagrams site launches.  Here are a few previews:

Screen Shot from New York Interactive

Diagram for SAP Knowledge Environment

Screen Shot from Beltrametti Interactive

Watch this blog for updates as the project continues – each entry will have a (Remodeling Dynamic Diagrams) in the title.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Dynamic Diagrams News

October 13, 2010, 10:27 am

What’s Wrong With These Survey Questions?

By Kirsten Robinson

I’m often called upon to design surveys and also to take them. One of my pet peeves is surveys that are released to the wild with design errors. Just as authors need editors, survey designers need reviewers to check for editorial and logical errors. Here are a few problem questions I’ve encountered recently. Can you spot the problems? If so, please post a comment.

Question 1.

Question 2.

Question 3.

Have you seen a poorly designed survey question recently? If you design surveys, what steps do you take to avoid errors?

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Comments (6) | Filed under: Information Design, User Experience

October 12, 2010, 10:56 am

Gregor Hohpe’s Diagram Manifesto

By Henry Woodbury

Why a diagram? We know how to communicate the value of diagrams to clients already attuned to visual thinking. The challenge is to reach those for whom the idea is unfamiliar. One of the best arguments I’ve encountered comes not from a designer, but from a software architect. In his manifesto on Diagram Driven Design, Gregor Hohpe speaks to his immediate audience (software architects) and their focus on rigorous technical documentation, but makes the broad case as well:

Drawing a picture forces us to clean up our thinking, lest we run out of paper. Do we depict the data flow, the class structure, or implementation detail? While a picture does not automagically make this problem go away, it puts it in your face much more than a meandering chain of prose, which from afar may not look all that bad. A well-known German proverb proclaims that “Papier is geduldig” (paper is patient), meaning paper is unlikely to object to what garbage you scribble on it. Diagrams tend to be a little less patient, and expose a wild mix of metaphors and abstractions more easily.

Hohpe doesn’t forgive poorly designed diagrams (“bad diagrams are not a useful design technique”), but warns against blaming the messenger:

If you are unable to draw a good diagram (and it isn’t due to lack of skill), it may just be because your actual system structure is nothing worth showing to anyone.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Diagrams, Information Design, Technology

October 11, 2010, 8:32 pm

Remodeling Dynamic Diagrams

By Tim Roy

In the coming weeks, you will see a number of changes at Dynamic Diagrams.  You may have already noticed the increase in our blogging activity here on Information Design Watch.  We now have an active Facebook IconFacebook and Twitter IconTwitter presence and myself and other team members are working to add useful and interesting content to these channels as regularly as possible.

There will also be modifications to our web site.  Dynamic Diagrams has been on the web since the mid-1990s.  The earliest shot I could find using the Wayback Machine was from 1996:

Dynamic Diagrams Web Site circa 1996

Dynamic Diagrams Web Site circa 2005

We are setting off in a new direction with the goal of simplifying our online presence and incorporating the powerful social media tools that allow us to keep the content fresh and provide useful information for clients and fans alike.  We also want to be able to showcase more of our work – some of the classic user experience diagrams, the early visualizations done for companies such as Netscape, and our more recent video and interactive pieces.

While this will not turn into a reality TV event, we will keep you updated as this process evolves so that you can “peek over our shoulders”  as we work.  I will provide some behind-the-scenes insights into how decisions were made, some of the ideas we consider and reject, and how it feels to be our own client.  I hope you enjoy watching this unfold and seeing the results once they are complete.

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Comments (1) | Filed under: Dynamic Diagrams News, User Experience

October 9, 2010, 7:15 pm

Mindful Looking, Cape Cod and LA

By Tim Roy

Kirk Tuck, who publishes The Visual Science Lab blog, recently published a great piece on “mindful looking.” In it, he discusses his interpretation of the Zen Buddhist principle of being aware of the moment. His view, when developing a photographic composition, is to follow “the practice of approaching each subject without the conscious intention to change its meaning by altering its perceptible structure.”

The idea here is to not consider a photographic subject with a planned post-production filter or modification in mind.  For by doing so, one subconsciously rejects images that might not fit the filtering or “look” that is desired.  Tuck argues that this is “fundamentally limiting for an artist and also establishes a feedback loop that replaces truly creative seeing with a ‘sub-routine’ that adds a comforting reference while stripping the act of photography of its essential representational power.”

Fall sunset on Cape Cod

I am on Cape Cod this weekend taking photographs and thinking about a new visualization project we are beginning next week  for a major Los Angeles museum.  After considering this fascinating point of view about the unintentional filtering and skinning we bring to image creation, it will be interesting to see how my photos and the ideas we begin to develop for this project are influenced.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Information Design, Photography

October 8, 2010, 9:29 am

New Ways to Follow Information Design Watch

By Kirsten Robinson

Information Design Watch fans and friends of Dynamic Diagrams now have two new ways to keep up with our latest news, information design obsessions, and other things that strike our fancy. We are on Facebook IconFacebook and Twitter IconTwitter. Follow us for immediate notifications of new blog posts as well as more tweets about visual explanation, user experience design, and more. We will also continue to publish Information Design Watch as a monthly email newsletter, for those who prefer that format.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Dynamic Diagrams News, Social Media

October 7, 2010, 10:29 pm

Balance Beams and Information Design

By Tim Roy

My 11 year old daughter is a competitive gymnast and I recently spent an evening watching her work with one of her coaches choreographing  a new routine for the balance beam.   As I listened to her coach say things such as “where are you looking? Make sure you are looking at the judge” and “the judge is going to want to see you do this,” I began to see a connection with the work they were doing and how we at Dynamic Diagrams think about presenting information.  In both cases, it is essential to consider the audience.

With a balance beam routine, it turns out there are actually two audiences: the judges (there are usually two) who will carefully observe and then assign a score based on difficulty, lack of errors in execution, and the confidence and joy the gymnast demonstrates.  The other audience are the people in the bleachers, often several hundred of them, who are watching with varying degrees of interest and motivation.  It might be a deeply engaged parent holding their breath as their daughter flings herself into the air backwards with the intent of landing on a four inch wide beam that is four feet off the ground.  Or it might be a competing team’s coach, looking for faults in the hope that their gymnasts will produce a better score.

My daughter in flight

At Dynamic Diagrams, we work with our clients to understand the characteristics of their audience.  Unfortunately, it is never as clear-cut as having a judging table with two individuals who have been trained over the course of years to evaluate and opine.  Instead, we think about what brings a person (for what is an audience but a collection of individuals?) to engage with information or to an experience.  Is it a museum visitor who wants to see a specific collection of art or a web site user with a concrete set of goals in mind such as buying a book or paying a bill?  Or is it someone with a business challenge interested in a new technology, or a curious visitor to a blog who saw something that caught their eye in a moment of serendipity?

My daughter’s beam routine has a certain number of required elements in order for her to compete.  This includes such things as being able to turn 360 degrees on one foot, to perform something called a “dance element” and the one that makes me cover my eyes: an acrobatic flight element (this means a back handspring).  Some of these moves are quite beautiful and ballet-like; some are cute and engender a smile; and some literally defy gravity and make everyone gasp as they are performed.

Presenting information is not so clear-cut.  There are significant differences in creating an experience based on a PowerPoint show as opposed to an interactive museum kiosk.  A web-based knowledge collection requires a different set of skills than a large format process diagram.  There are the required elements: clear and legible typography; deliberate and carefully planned use of language; a color palette that does not overwhelm the message itself.  And like the best gymnasts, the “tricks” that make people stare in wonder should be used sparingly and to maximum effect.

As information designers, we almost never have an opportunity to craft an experience that will be judged by two people with a predetermined set of criteria.  Thinking about your audience is critical.  While everyone has something they feel is important to communicate, what will be the experience of your audience?  It is a worthwhile exercise to consider, even if you never leave the safety of solid ground.

Shawn Johnson’s 2008 Olympic Gold Medal-Winning Balance Beam Routine

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Information Design, User Experience

October 6, 2010, 4:44 pm

Place as Idea

By Tim Roy

For New England readers of Information Design Watch, the Worcester Art Museum has a new exhibit opening on October 9, 2010: Place as Idea.

David Maisel, Terminal Mirage #215-9-4, 2003, Chromogenic print, Gift of Edward Osowski in honor of the photographer and the Eliza S. Paine Fund, 2005.102

Its focus will be on the role place plays in visualizing abstract concepts such as time and memory and will feature works by a series of contemporary artists employing a variety of mediums.  Of particular interest is a collection of pieces in which the traditional bounds of photography are challenged as the canonical record of architectural experience.

I plan to visit the exhibit in the coming weeks and will post images and reactions.  It will be on display through February 13, 2011.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Art, Current Events, Language, User Experience

October 6, 2010, 12:19 pm

Timeline of the History of Systematic Data and the Development of Computable Knowledge

By Lisa Agustin

Presented at last month’s Wolfram Data Summit in Washington, DC: a timeline of organization through the ages.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Charts and Graphs, Diagrams, Information Design

October 4, 2010, 7:31 pm

Creating Experiences with Sir John Soane

By Tim Roy

Dynamic Diagrams has been privileged to collaborate with some of the finest museums in the world including the J. Paul Getty Museum, the National Air and Space Museum, and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.  While our work has ranged from designing the overall information architecture of a museum’s web presence, to multi-media personal histories, to complex interactive kiosks involving 3D models, it is connected by the unifying thread of our focus on user experience.  By considering how a visitor will experience an interaction – be it a web site, kiosk, or video – we can help our clients facilitate the most challenging of communication goals: understanding.

There is little doubt that the “big” museums – the Gettys, the Tates, and the MOMAs – garner a great deal of public attention for their collections and the experiences they create.  Yet, there is something special about the “small” museums and what they can teach us.

Sir John Soane’s Museum is one such example.  Located in London, it was established in 1806 by the architect Sir John Soane in the interest of providing design and artistic resources for his architectural students.  By 1833, the collection had been made public under an act of Parliament  and upon Soane’s death, in 1837, was placed under the auspices of a board of trustees and a curator, with the sole intent of making the house and its holdings broadly accessible.

Housing almost 35,000 unique items ranging from Egyptian antiquities to medieval objects to  architectural models, Soane assembled his own secret world designed to inspire “Amateurs and Students of the Arts.”  In his attention to the smallest and most subtle detail, Soane created meaning for those who cared enough to carefully observe and engage.  Stories could be found in a letter’s postmark or in the placement of a single carved button.  In many ways, this is an early gesture towards producing an experience for a collections’ users informed by a shared language and common goals.

The newly-redesigned Sir John Soane Museum website.

The museum’s web site was recently redesigned and provides an interesting overview of the collection and some of its hidden details.  Still, there is no replacement for actually experiencing the museum in person, even if one must patiently queue for admission.  The wait is absolutely worth it.

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Comments (3) | Filed under: 3D Modeling, Art, Information Architecture, User Experience

October 1, 2010, 2:57 pm

Freedom of Choice (with Assistance)

By Lisa Agustin

According to a recent article in strategy + business, creating a better shopping experience is really about offering a better choosing experience. More specifically, fewer choices. Offering people lots of options — 31 flavors! (Baskin-Robbins) 87,000 drink combinations! (Starbucks) 27 million books! (Amazon)– sounds like a great idea.  But too many choices can have the opposite effect, leading to confusion, anxiety about the “right” choice and ultimately a poor choice or even No Sale.  Why? In a nutshell, it comes down to neurological limits on our ability to process information–while the idea of lots of choices sounds exciting (there’s one made “just for me”!), it can be paralyzing to choose from too many options.

The article references studies performed in a grocery store (choosing a jar of jam) and a workplace (choosing a retirement savings plan) to illustrate its point, but it struck me that this applies to online experiences, too.  A web site with a lot of content that offers too many options that are poorly organized will lead to frustrated users who will abandon your site for your competitor’s.

So how do we– marketers or user experience (UX) practitioners–craft a better choosing experience?  Authors Sheen Iyengar and Kanika Agrawal offer the following tips, to which I’ve added my UX take:

  1. Cut the number of options.
  2. Don’t worry about losing shelf space to competitors–in the end, trimming back the product line lowers costs, increases sales, and makes it easier for consumers to choose. According to the authors, “In case the poor performers aren’t evident from sales figures, focus groups and online networks can help you separate the wheat from the chaff.” My UX take: Focus on presenting the content and tasks that mean the most to your users. A combination of web analytics and user feedback (interviews or surveys) will help you figure out what should be on the site and what’s expendable.

  3. Create confidence with expert or personalized recommendations.
  4. Expert reviews and recommendations “let consumers skip over much of the information-processing component of choosing, minimizing cognitive stress and enabling them to make good choices,” according to Iyengar and Agrawal. My UX take: This tip speaks directly to the online experience. Many web sites offering highly differentiated items (books, music, clothes) benefit from recommendation tools, or automated systems (“electronic agents”) that generate suggestions based on consumers’ expressed preferences. While these tools require more of an investment on the part of the organization and sometimes the user (e.g., if a survey or profile needs to be completed), they can be worth it if your web site is one that offers a large quantity of content or inventory to peruse.

  5. Categorize your offerings so that consumers better understand their options.
  6. “For an expert, there is no completely unique product or service; rather, each offering is a distinctive combination of attributes that the expert has seen before.” The key is getting a novice to act like an expert by creating top-level categories that are easily understood. As an example, the authors cite wine retailer Best Cellars, which limits its varieties to 100 wines that are divided into eight top-level categories, such as “fizzy,” “juicy,” and “sweet.” Once the novice has chosen a category, he or she can choose a wine within that category by reading the detailed labels that accompany all the bottles. My UX take: For web site users that rely on browsing to find what they want, category names are critical. This means avoiding terminology that is either organization-centric (“Initiatives”) or vague (“Solutions”) and using what makes the most sense to users.

  7. Condition consumers by gradually introducing them to more-complex choices.
  8. “For certain kinds of decisions, you can set up consumers for success by encouraging them to learn from, and build upon, their own previous choices.” Iyengar cites a study in which two groups of car customers were asked to customize their vehicles, choosing everything from the engine to the rearview mirror. The first group started by choosing features with a high number of options, moving to those with low numbers of options. The second group started by making choices for features with a low number of options first. In the end, the first group had a less satisfying experience: “They began by carefully considering every option, but they soon grew tired and settled for the default. In the end, they wound up less satisfied with their cars than the buyers who had progressed from low choice to high choice.” My UX take: Users can go through a lot of information online, provided it’s presented to them in a way that lets them process it in logical bite-sized pieces. This means creating an information architecture that uses categories that make sense to the intended audiences, a hierarchical structure that lets users drill down and expose more information as they need it, and a supporting design that visually prioritizes information on each page.

Iyengar and Agrawal acknowledge the dilemma: “Don’t marketers have to give consumers what they want? Yes and no. We should give them what they really want, not what they say they want…They want to feel confident of their preferences and competent during the choosing process; they want to trust and enjoy their choices, not question them.” The online experience should work the same way.

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Comments (2) | Filed under: Books and Articles, Business, Information Architecture, Usability, User Experience

October 1, 2010, 11:52 am

Shakespeare Visualized?

By Tim Roy

Earlier this week, I was speaking with Nancy Duarte about her new book Engage and comparing notes about our respective explorations of literature and drama over the past few months.  With the help of a dear friend, I had set out on a course of reading some of the great works of drama in order to help develop my skills in creating better narratives for our clients.

I recently came across this site: Understanding Shakespeare, a project undertaken by Stephen Thiel and the University of Potsdam.  His goal was to “extract and visualize the information found within the text to reveal its underlying narrative algorithm.”  Using a variety of inquiry paths (dramatic structure, summary, enter/exit, and Google results), Thiel has produced a  series of static visualizations illustrating objective findings about the Bard’s work.

While the results of this work have produced these not-surprisingly dense visualizations, it remains unclear how useful this type of data exploration might be.  We often speak to our clients about first understanding the needs of an audience — what do you want them to think, feel and do after experiencing your story — in this case, what are the benefits of knowing these narrative patterns or the word count of a specific character?

To be fair (and offer Thiel the benefit of the doubt), this close analysis might prove helpful to Shakespearean scholars and others looking for specific linguistic patterns.  Yet for the rest of us, it would seem that the art of A Midsummer Night’s Dream or the nod towards symbolic communication in Sonnet 23, cannot be divined by a visualization.

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Comments (1) | Filed under: Diagrams, Information Design, Visual Explanation