Some years ago, my friend Justin showed me a copy of Visual Thesaurus. I squealed with delight, which is always embarrassing at work. Click on the image below to see why. (All the images in this post link to the examples, by the way).
Recently I came across an open source version of the technology underlying Visual Thesaurus at spicynodes.org.
What am I talking about? Well, this is a way to present information so that people can explore it in a naturalistic way by clicking from concept to concept in an interactive ‘map’. But seductive though it is, it’s not always the best way to present information.
This approach is helpful when you want to hide the options you reject. This can be with a rich and complex subject (the Visual Thesaurus) or a simple tree structure, as with the catalogue below. It may not be the best choice for a catalogue but in this case I think it works.
It helps if the subject matter is well understood: this example covers the solar system and seems to have been abandoned, which is a shame. If you click Sun > Mars > Phobos you realise what a neat explanation of the solar system this could be.
The technology also lends itself to certain forms of artistic endeavour, I like this one in particular:
It’s also been used with reasonable success to deliver Haiku
I think the technology lends itself to this sort of artistically guided happenstance, and I can certainly imagine an artistic installation along these lines.
I looked at well over a hundred of these maps, and those the best. The worst are dreadful.
Do not use this technique if your users are likely to want to step backwards and forwards through the navigation. This is how people navigate when they want to be sure they”ve not missed anything. SpicyNodes own home page shows how exasperating this approach can be.
Don’t use it when a simpler tool would do. Whoever created the example below was on top of their data, but their information would be much better presented in the form of bulleted slides. Using the interactive map just makes it unnecessarily fussy:
Here we see how important it is to get the hierarchical structure right. The map below is an A-Z of the world’s nations. But wouldn’t it have been more interesting to have them organised by geographical region? If you want an A-Z list, then I think a simple A-Z list would be better and would take up less space.
And this is the worst scenario of all: a navigation tool for a web-site. It actually subtracts value, because it takes up the whole page and makes it hard to view the content of the site in a logical sequence. It’s a relief to know the organisation concerned has a traditional side and top navigation structure.
Finally, I wasn’t sure how to categorise this map (which I found fascinating, by the way). It would make a good teaching aid but it’s not particularly good for conveying information.
So where does that leave us?
Firstly it’s clever but not necessarily helpful. In fact mapping something this way is only useful when people know what they want to find out and want to ignore everything else: if they need an even view of the whole subject matter then this is not the tool to use.
Secondly it’s good for a certain type of artistic expression; it wouldn’t surprise me to see something like this in a gallery.
And finally, creating this sort of map is time-consuming and you really have to understand your data well, and so do your users.
I struggled to think of a situation where this would be the best tool for presenting data so I decided to go the artistic route, and see if it added anything to the experience of the sort of poem with repeated lines.
I have to conclude that it doesn’t, but it was fun trying.