Navigation interfaces for information sites

Posted on November 13, 2007. Filed under: English, heatmaps, maps, network_map, Tagcloud, treemaps |

A few weeks ago was held the second meeting of the Social Media Club Paris, started by Pierre-Yves P. (one of my 2 partners at faberNovel Consulting) and Alban M. (renowned author of "L'Age de Peer" and currently working for Orange – France Telecom). We had around the table the founders of some of the most advanced participative news sites in France : L. Mauriac (Rue89), C. Revelli (Agoravox), B. Thieulin (Desirsdavenir), G. Champeau (Ratiatum), J. Jacob (Obiwi), etc… Among the very interesting things that were said that evening on fostering and managing online participation and debates, there were a few on visualization.

Technology, said T. Vedel (IEP Paris), brings some solutions and create new difficulties. Two avenues are possible:

  • aggregation or large quantities of information with visualization tools (mapping, semantic analysis, synopti vision, …) to facilitate the entry in the debate
  • or the use of knowledge trees (see below the example done synthesizing motions of the 2005 Congress of the French Party Socialiste), using color codes to show votes in a more efficient manner than arithmetic averages

Emploi          Education

The problem with dealing with a large quantity of information he said is our "limited cognitive abilities and cultural resources". "The image is the dominant language in politics as it has the capacity both to transport a lot of information and emotion" he concluded.

The issues that have been experimented in the political science field (where debates are a core component) are also critical to modern information websites, where a debate/discussion happens in the comments and extend the article, but also the mass of articles themselves could be seen as a debate on some topics, showing different arguments and their evolution. I am going to list the most used here, explain their limits and illustrate them with examples

  • Tagcloud: I have already presented it as it is one of my favorite knowledge design techniques, because I think it is both simple and has great potential for KM. Originally designed to display keywords associated to a text by the author and readers, but also experimentally used to synthesize, or present key arguments in a text (see the analysis of French candidates political speaches by French linguist Jean Veronis). You can read more at Peter Vander Wal's Infocloud: he is the one who coined the term "folksonomy"). A free tool to create tagclouds is TagCrowd. Below is an example taken from Amazon's new Inside This Book concordance analysis feature, available on books that are part of the Search Inside the Book program.

Tipping Point's tagcloud

As you can judge, this feature is not yet very useful : can you guess what the "Tipping Point" book from Malcolm Gladwell is all about ? Not really a synthesis 😉 You see that to be useful you have to trim your text from non-significant or not-significant-enough words, and probably go for a different algorythm altogether than the most frequent words.

Amazon is experimenting with various (and numerous !) techniques to synthesize texts but none really seem very effective: Key Phrases (Statistically Improbable Phrases, or Capitalized Phrases) don't return some of the words or phrases you would expect such as mavens, connectors, … Text Stats will only interest fans of bizarre statistics or adepts of Freakonomics. Only the Citations give you some meaningful data, but not really useful the way they are presented here. But I will come back to this later (with the Touchgraph tool).

There are 2 other ones you can find : heatmaps (applied on treemaps) and network maps.

  • Heatmap: one of the best example can be found at Newsmap, presenting live news from Google News (via Infosthetics), used on, both using the Marumushi tool

Newsmap's heatmap with Google News

Another nice heatmap is this one (via Smashing Magazine), displaying the zones of intense debate/battle on Wikipedia.

Wikipedia heatmap 

  • Networkmaps: very much used for music discovery, LivePlasma's engine has been used at CNet in 2005 under the name BigPicture, but this flash widget has disappeared recently (see Robert Scoble's post and a more recent one here with a link to a similar application by LinkSViewer). One of the best apps for this is TouchGraph, which has been adapted for Amazon (with books often bought by similar profiles), Google (with links between websites), Facebook (with pictures from friends) or (with related tags).

 CNet BigPicture widget

So ? Some taste of the semantic web ? So far only the heatmap seems to have lasting success with information sites, the network map didn't stick so far, despite good reviews from experts (see Olivier Ertzscheid's blog). Those new interfaces still have to be improved a lot to be used by casual, everyday users, but are already very useful for some professionals in the information analysis sector, which seems to be the primary market for the editors of those tools. Adam Ostrow at Mashable has a good selection of dataviz tools you might want to check, as well as the Smashing Magazine.

We have also seen some original / innovative visualization techniques popping up here and there, some taking a social or time approach to linking and visualizing content:

  • Radial graphs: some are used to display social connections in a network or community around an individual, like those influenced by Facebook's Friend Wheel and the idea of a "social graph" representing all connections between members of a community in a graphical way. For others, the idea is to represent the 4th dimension of time as a wheel, and adding the connections inside it like spokes. music listening history Enron Email analysis

But again, also it may look nice, understanding it is not intuitive, and time is still best shown … as time 😉 like in many animated graphics (see the best example with Hans Rosling's Trendanalyzer) or using a timeline (see Dandelife).

The last solutions are using 3D environments, either pure mathematical constructions such as network representations, very similar in a way to space/galaxy navigation 🙂 see also the incredible Universe experiment by J. Harris, or real-life environments, based for example on city or landscape metaphors. More advanced metaverse metaphors could be developped, using diverse immersive tools, like those displayed in movies (eg Disclosure, starring Michael Douglas, and Demi Moore) and sci-fi books (eg Tom Clancy's NetForce collection of books) or the "must" in VR machines such as the "Virtusphere" shown below.



Let's hope someone will come up with better stuff than that to explore information 😉



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[…] was invited to present some of the research I had done for a previous blog entry on navigation interfaces for information sites last November (see a French version here : Les interfaces de navigation pour les sites […]

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