Information Design Watch

January 18, 2012, 11:53 am

SOPA Day

By Henry Woodbury

Wikipedia (English) is blacked out.

Wikipedia (English) Blacked Out

Wikipedia is just one of many. Other sites, including Google, are acknowledging the protest.

Kirby Ferguson explains.

Update: This is off-topic for this blog, but it is important to note that free use is not just about the internet. On Wednesday the Supreme Court failed to overturn a 1994 Congressional act that removes thousands of musical texts from the public domain.

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

December 27, 2011, 10:57 am

The Infographic Dump

By Henry Woodbury

I’ve been meaning to write about a spate of bad infographics I’ve been seeing recently in blog posts and social media feeds, but Megan McArdle beat me to it:

If you look at these lovely, lying infographics, you will notice that they tend to have a few things in common:

  1. They are made by random sites without particularly obvious connection to the subject matter. Why is Creditloan.com making an infographic about the hourly workweek?
  2. Those sites, when examined, either have virtually no content at all, or are for things like debt consolidation–industries with low reputation where brand recognition, if it exists at all, is probably mostly negative.
  3. The sources for the data, if they are provided at all, tend to be in very small type at the bottom of the graphic, and instead of easy-to-type names of reports, they provide hard-to-type URLs which basically defeat all but the most determined checkers.
  4. The infographics tend to suggest that SOMETHING TERRIBLE IS HAPPENING IN THE US RIGHT NOW!!! the better to trigger your panic button and get you to spread the bad news BEFORE IT’S TOO LATE!

The infographics are being used to get unwitting bloggers to drive up their google search rankings. When they get a link from Forbes, or a blogger like Andrew Sullivan–who is like Patient Zero for many of these infographics–Google thinks they must be providing valuable information. Infographics are so good at getting this kind of attention that web marketing people spend a lot of time writing articles about how you can use them to boost your SEO (search engine optimization).

As summarized in point 3 above, McArdle goes into some detail on the misuse of data. But another strange thing about these infographics is that they seem to spring for the same design template. I added this comment to McArdle’s post:

These graphs suffer from more than misappropriated data. They also suffer from low data density and horrible design. The best charts, graphs, and visual explanations inspire insight by providing numbers in context, hopefully in multiple dimensions of data. Derek Thompson’s Graphs of the Year are hardly objective but they at least force some thought in figuring out their flaws.

What we see in many of these charts are isolated numbers accompanied by a cartoonish graphic. The design is boilerplate baroque, apparently created by underemployed battle-of-the-band poster designers. The long vertical is a dead giveaway. I’m starting to see it over and over and I know, almost as soon as I see the aspect ratio, that what I’m seeing is hack work.

Sadly, I think the “success” of this format is generating well-intentioned imitators. Click through for examples. I’m not posting any here.

p.s. My apologies to battle-of-the-band poster designers. There’s nothing wrong with boilerplate baroque in context.

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Comments (1) | Filed under: Charts and Graphs, Illustration, Infographics, Marketing, Social Media

November 2, 2011, 1:18 pm

The New and Improved Google Reader! Slightly Dingy and Now with Dark Patterns!

By Lisa Agustin

I use Facebook, but was not one of those people who grumbled about the latest changes. I accept that technology is about looking forward, convergence makes sense in many cases, and that improving the user experience means continually tweaking an information architecture and visual design to reach whatever your bigger goal may be (e.g., conversions).

But then Google released its redesign of Reader, and we went from this:

to this:


[Image credits: SheGeeks.net]

Google calls the design “cleaner, faster, and nicer to look at.”  But after reading their announcement more closely, it’s really more about creating a tighter integration with Google+ by turning off Reader’s friending, following, shared items and comments in favor of similar Google+ functionality. Which is okay, since I do see the point of consolidating Reader’s social aspect with Google+. But the redesign has actually made sharing harder, not easier. Former Google Reader Product Manager Brian Shih puts it this way:

Keep in mind that on top of requiring 3-4 times as many clicks, you also now must +1 a post publicly to share it, even if it’s shared to a private circle. That bears repeating. The next time you want to share some sexy halloween costumes with your private set of friends, you first must publicly +1 the post, which means it shows up on your profile, plus wherever the hell G+ decides to use +1 data. So much for building a network around privacy controls.

But then later, an update:

It turns out there is a way to share without +1′ing first. If you click on the top right “Share…” field on the OneGoogle bar [the bar at the very top of the pane], you can bypass the +1 button. It’s just completely undiscoverable.

Sounds like a dark pattern to me.

But let’s put Google+ aside, since sharing wasn’t why I used Reader in the first place. It was about the content. How quickly can I see what’s new and get to an individual story? From an information design perspective, I’d think making the design cleaner would mean maximizing space for original content. Rather it seems they did the opposite, with a thicker/more spacious header bar that pushes content further down the page.

From a visual design standpoint, greeted by a new absence of color, I wondered if they were trying to make it look like a traditional newspaper, removing colored elements as if they were distractions? While there is such a thing as too much color, the new Reader goes overboard in the other direction. With black, white, and grey being the dominant scheme, it’s hard to tell what the priority is in the UI. Google even eliminated the use of the bright blue link color that facilitates scanning.  Now nothing stands out–except for the bright red Subscribe button and the blue Search button.  Maybe it’s time to revisit the pluses of eye candy.

Kvetching aside, I suppose I will get used to the new direction (assuming I don’t switch feeds first).  I also guess I had better brace myself for the upcoming Gmail redesign.

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Comments (2) | Filed under: Information Architecture, Information Design, Social Media, Technology, User Experience, Web Interface Design

September 20, 2011, 10:14 am

Game Theory

By Henry Woodbury

Why would scientific experts call on gamers to solve problems in protein folding? Here’s why:

“People have spatial reasoning skills, something computers are not yet good at,” [Dr. Seth Cooper, of the UW Department of Computing Science and Engineering] said. “Games provide a framework for bringing together the strengths of computers and humans.”

The game goes by the name Foldit and is supported by University of Washington Center for Game Science.

When you first start playing the game takes you through a series of practice examples to get you familiar with the manipulations you can apply to a protein chain.

Foldit Intro Puzzle 3 of 32

If you get hooked, you continue to real problems. Already, game-generated models have helped researchers resolve the structure of previously undefined proteins. Researchers are also looking at some of the unfolding sequences used by Foldit players to develop better algorithms for computer analysis.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: 3D Modeling, Creativity, Scholarly Publishing, Social Media, Technology

July 21, 2011, 12:23 pm

Crowd Control and the Web

By Henry Woodbury

We all know the problem. Any open-access forum, social network, or comments venue on the Internet can easily be overrun by savage attacks and inane vulgarities. Blogger and entrepreneur Anil Dash responds with a bold claim — “This is a solved problem“:

As it turns out, we have a way to prevent gangs of humans from acting like savage packs of animals. In fact, we’ve developed entire disciplines based around this goal over thousands of years. We just ignore most of the lessons that have been learned when we create our communities online. But, by simply learning from disciplines like urban planning, zoning regulations, crowd control, effective and humane policing, and the simple practices it takes to stage an effective public event, we can come up with a set of principles to prevent the overwhelming majority of the worst behaviors on the Internet.

Dash follows with a list of concrete actions responsible content owners need to take to manage the crowd. It all starts with having real people moderate the content. Dash links to Robert Niles at Online Journalism Review, who states flatly: “If you can’t manage comments well, don’t offer comments at all“.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Social Media, Technology, User Experience

July 13, 2011, 4:38 pm

The Death of Blogging in One Paragraph

By Henry Woodbury

Apparently Google+ is going to end blogging once and for all. First blogging was co-opted by big media. Second, blogging was trumped by short-form social media. In this framework the death of blogging can be summed up in one paragraph:

Remember blog rolls? Looking back, we can say they were the original Facebook Friend lists, or Twitter Followers, or Google+ Circles.

In other words, the network is more important than the content.

Facebook and Twitter and Google, each in their own way, make networking very easy. But when everyone is networked, what will everyone do next? Don’t say content. Content is hard.

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Comments (3) | Filed under: Social Media, Technology

June 9, 2011, 2:23 pm

Off the (Google) Grid

By Henry Woodbury

In IEEE Spectrum’s Special Report on the Social Web, Joshua J. Romero attempts to decouple himself — from Google. In his article “How I Learned to Live Google-free” he writes about retrieving his cloud data and picking alternative services, issues that touch on data handling, user experience, technology, and unintended consequences. His comment about single sign-on, for example, really resonated with me:

It’s easy to get seduced by the lure of a single sign-on. But managing multiple user accounts actually isn’t as much of an annoyance as we think it is. For me, it quickly became clear that my single Google account had mixed and muddled my personal and professional services and data.

Link through to take the survey about which Google services you use (with some notable omissions), and learn about the various alternatives Romero discovered.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Social Media, Technology, User Experience

May 10, 2011, 10:31 am

“The Dynamics of Rumor Creation”

By Henry Woodbury

SocialFlow, a Twitter-marketing-optimization company has created a striking visualization on the tweets that broke the news of Osama Bin Laden’s death:

At SocialFlow we analyzed 14.8 million public Tweets, and bitly links, posted between news about an unplanned presidential address (9:46 p.m. EST) and Obama’s address (11:30 p.m. EST) to see how dynamics of rumor creation played out during those critical hours on Twitter. Out of the dominant information flows observed in the data, we focus on the largest flow, engaging tens of thousands of users, validating speculation around Bin Laden’s death.

Keith Urban Tweet Flow

This jellyfish star chart presents a lot of data, but as best as I can guess, there is no coordinate system. It shows us constellations, not distance nor direction. There is no depth to it.

Still, hubs are interesting. Click through to see zoomed views.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Charts and Graphs, Current Events, Information Design, Maps, Social Media, Visual Explanation

May 9, 2011, 10:40 pm

Feelings Interactive

By Henry Woodbury

Columbia Journalism Review writes about one of The New York Times recent features:

…a new interactive graph on The New York Times website invites readers to plot their reactions to two questions: How much of a turning point in the war on terror will Bin Laden’s death represent? (significant to insignificant), and What is your emotional response? (positive to negative).

The format is useful for commenters because they can easily click a square and answer two questions at once, and it’s useful for the casual reader, who can measure the feelings of the crowd at a glance. When you first visit the page, you can click on any square to see others’ comments or to plot your own—or, you can just watch for a few minutes, as I did, as random comments slowly float up and fade out from the mosaic.

To me the format is far more interesting than the opinions. The format shapes the aggregate results.

Given quadrants, there is bias toward adhering to a quadrant.

Given edges there is bias toward approaching the edges.

Given existing dots, I strongly suspect there is bias toward clumping.

The Death of a Terrorist: A Turning Point?

Now that I’ve looked at this interactive a few times the other thing that interests me is how it would look as an animation. The Columbia Journalism Review article offers a screen shot taken much earlier than the one above. The patterns are already taking shape.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Charts and Graphs, Cognitive Bias, Current Events, Diagrams, Information Design, Social Media, Visual Explanation

January 6, 2011, 10:43 am

Social Media for Designers

By Henry Woodbury

Combine social media with design and you might end up with a site like Dribbble (that’s with three b’s). Just make sure you also come up with an elegant user interface design and use an oddball basketball metaphor for the site vocabulary.

Excerpt from Dribbble home page, 6-Jan-2010

Like many successful social media sites, the underlying concept is simple. Where Twitter limits word count, Dribbble limits image size — to 300 x 400 pixels, max. Common social media elements like tags, comments, and fans enrich the experience. Fans and views drive a popularity index and an inexplicable “playoffs” page.

One of Dribbble’s innovations is the “rebound”, a graphical reply to another posted design. This is technically similar to sharing in Facebook or trackbacks in blogging, but Dribbble does a markedly superior job in presenting the cross-communication. Which is good, because cross-communication inspires better design.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Charts and Graphs, Design, Diagrams, Information Design, Social Media, Technology, Web Interface Design

December 7, 2010, 3:26 pm

What Color are Your Tentacles?

By Henry Woodbury

Build a Squid InterfaceThanks to the Museum of New Zealand, Te Papa Tongarewa, you can build your own squid.

The Build a Squid interactive is akin to the avatar-builders associated with online games and social media sites. It is a great example of the advantage of fewer choices. There are six components, each with three options, and, for all but eyes, the same palette of 14 colors, blends and patterns. All the naming and design options are accessible all the time. You can cycle through options using “Next” and “Previous” but there’s no need to be sequential.

Also refreshing, for a man who has spent a number of hours logging his children into Disney web sites, is the absence of terms, permissions, and validations. Which isn’t surprising since once you create your squid and drag it back and forth across your screen, you’re pretty much done. All you can do is release your virtual creature into the virtual deep.

How interesting is that?

Interesting enough I guess. After you release your squid, it is easy to find it again using its name or your email. You can check its age, weight, and mileage and drag it around the screen again.

Since the real point of Build a Squid is to drive traffic to Te Papa’s colossal squid exhibition it would seem to be doing its job. The application is two years old and hosts plenty of squid.

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Comments (1) | Filed under: Social Media, Technology, 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 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 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

May 19, 2009, 11:16 am

Twitter as Public Art

By Lisa Agustin

vistweet1vistweet2

Check out “Visible Tweets”, a visualization of Twitter intended for public spaces or, as creator Cameron Adams puts it, “a Twitter visualizer for rock concerts.” Simply enter whose tweets you’d like to see, and choose one of three animation styles to see the tweets letter by letter, rotating as they are linked to each other, or as a tag cloud that morphs from one tweet into the next. Adams’ allusion to rock concerts stems from his assertion that Twitter is normally about the chatter that takes a back seat to the main event (but doesn’t have to):

Twitter gives a voice to an audience who for many years have played a subservient role to those who were officially there to speak. But who says they have less to say?

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Art, Information Design, Social Media, Technology

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