Tools that extend our senses : maps as a point of entry to explore the city around us

Posted on March 19, 2009. Filed under: Cognition, Design, English, maps, Medias, Search |

I recently had the opportunity to come back to Marshall McLuhan’s 1964 book “Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man“. Although his definition of media is quite large, it reminds us that the main function of a tool is to extend a man’s abilities (this is what differentiates us from most animals), and as such it acts as a mediator between us and the surrounding world, to probe, manipulate and act upon what it tells our senses. Authors like Howard Rheingold in “Tools for Thought“, adapted and extended this vision to modern computer tools as an extension of thought.

As we come up with new tools, design (see Don Norman’s book “The Design of Everyday Things“) tells us to build upon learned behaviors, or affordances. Don Norman uses the term to refer to the “perceived and actual properties of the thing, primarily those fundamental properties that determine just how the thing could possibly be used. A chair affords (“is for”) support and, therefore, affords sitting…/… Plates are for pushing. Knobs are for turning. Slots are for inserting things into.”

In a way Google’s and Apple’s success is due to their adaptation of natural affordances to new uses. They did not invent those affordances, they “merely” did a very good marketing and engineering job. Now a “white box” affords search and a”touch weel” affords folder navigation.

Good design


As we develop more and more mobile phone applications with an internet access, what would be the best affordances ? I am not talking about complex “mind amplification” applications, but just simple applications like city guides for example. How should such applications be designed ? for instant use in mobility (“now we’re all together, where shall we eat ?”) or planning (“I want to book a restaurant with a terrasse for Sunday brunch”) ? Should we go for search or folder navigation affordances ? Or is there another, more adapted one based on visual interfaces like tagclouds, geographical maps, network maps, …, or interactive interfaces like multi-touch, point/click, buttons, etc… ?

Let’s have a look and test 2 iPhone city guides, applications that offer restaurants listings and recommandations. The first one is Michelin’s recent iPhone app (disclaimer : I was offered to test it by Michelin, which is good since it is quite expensive), and the second one is TellMeWhere (or Dismoiou in French). But first let’s have a look at their “desktop web” welcome page :


Welcome Page

The comparison is not fully adequate since Michelin doesn’t really have an online version (it is available only as books) and this one is the promotional website for the 100th edition, but it shows clearly that TellMeWhere has done the choice of the list, whereas Michelin couldn’t decide and offered both the search box and the map. A quick A/B test would have let them know which one was the most appropriate and therefore improve the bounce rate.

The test becomes more interesting for the mobile applications. This what the welcome pages (after the splash screen) look like :

iPhone Welcome page

Both by default used the localization feature of the iPhone and displayed a list of restaurants in the immediate vicinity, but as TellMeWhere went for the map, Michelin stayed with the list … One of the reasons being probably that having less restaurants listed (since it is their own selection), they did not want to go for a map where for a given scale only a limited choice would be available. But this probably for other reasons as well since maps are almost not used in the application. But before we get to that, let’s have a look at the “alternative” welcome page :


iPhone alternative welcome page

 TellMeWhere offers to turn off the localization, and to choose betwen a list and a map interface. Michelin offers different choices : a list of restaurants in the vicinity, or near a given address (most probably trying to leverage their ViaMichelin maps and routes user base and application, or – a third option – the list of recent restaurants consulted.

So now, what do the item (restaurant) page look like ?

Restaurant page

Here again the editorial choices are clear : while TellMeWhere puts the social recommandation forward directly on the page, and chose a colourful design (including a picture that can be added by the users themselves from the web or via the iPhone camera), Michelin stayed loyal to the design of the book version, enhancing its elite position, but – revolution !! – allowing for recommandations from users !!! We’re impatient to know more about how many people actually do it, but we’ve seen from other ‘elite’ brands (such as newspaper LeMonde) that such openings are really powerful attractors if they can manage it. A little adition that we’ve noted on he Michelin application (but that also exist on the TellMeWhere one, although not as intuitive and extended), is the possibility to contact / locate and know more (via its website) about the restaurant.

In conclusion I would say that both apps are nicely designed, but that the challenges are different :

  • for Michelin to master the art of community management whithout endangering its brand equity
  • for TellMeWhere to reach a critical mass of users and improve/extend its applicatio’s functionnalities (they’ve implemented a “feedback” module for co-design on the web, using Feedback2.0 platform, a French alternative of GetSatisfaction)

And that from a design and usability perspective, we still need some hard data to know which affordance is the best 🙂 Being a “map” man, I know some do not like using them …but that’s another story 🙂


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Visual Mind Games : when the mind takes over and goes graphical

Posted on December 29, 2008. Filed under: Designers, English, History, maps | Tags: , , , , |

As most of the readers of this blog, you are already familiar with MindMapping (“carte heuristique”). In anticipation to the meetup of the French visual thinking community (Cafe Carto 2.0, last Dec. 17th in La Cantine, Paris) where all participants were asked to present themeselves via a map, I wanted to look at different “mapping” techniques. The MindMapping meme / school being quite strong in that community (and to some respects in France : see Petillant), I have been revisiting other visual mind games and found quite a few.



Guillaume Apollinaire

Cadavre Exquis by Prevert, Breton and Co


  • Another popular visual mind game is the doodle (“griffonnage” or “crayonnage” in French), that designer Dennis Hwang made a key part of the Google brand. During the last seminar I attended there were a good 5 doodlers in the room (at least that left their doodles behind them …). Not to be mixed up with the very useful meeting sscheduling tool, it is a key part of school age : who hasn’t doodled on his books or notebooks ? Many still do as an adult, during conferences, phone calls, etc… Some psychologists and cogniticians have dwelved on why we doodle, and what it tells about someone’s profile or state of mind (the “alphabet” of doodles.

Google doodles       Doodle notebook


  • Maybe the last game I found is rebus, a visual word puzzle. Like most games, often played in childhood, it enabled me to work with pictures, so that’s the technique I used for my map (see below). I later discovered that rebus generator, but because mine is a mix of French and English … and I had specific images in my mind, I wouldn’t have used it anyway.


You Scie ouate aie mine : Vis sue ali a sion dés cône essence

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Startup geographic mapping : cool visualization using TechCrunch’s CrunchBase

Posted on December 2, 2008. Filed under: English, maps, Navigation, Search, web2.0 | Tags: , , |

Thanks to Benedikt for pointing it out to me :

For the first time that I see a nice (from a graphical point of point) Google Map mashup : well done !!


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Mapping and other visualization techniques to catalog skills and provide orientation for talent management

Posted on November 21, 2008. Filed under: English, maps | Tags: , , , , |


Talent and career management experts have long tried to catalog skills and capabilities, using taxonomies, or more recently folksonomies (see my previous blog post). For an easier presentation of those, many visualization techniques have been used, from interactive and multiple dimension maps, to more simple infographics based on common metaphors.

I just discovered Deloitte’s latest paper on talent management in an ad in the HBR, of which I have extracted (fair use I assume) the key visual below, using the popular “periodic table” visualization metaphor :


Deloitte's talent periodic table


While I hope this will help HR professionals and employees to visualize what is requested from them (like a “cheat sheet”), I can only hope this is only the first of many more visuals to come. The other ones I can think of are :


  • Orientation : provide a map of the routes for career development, each road bearing the signs of the training needed and the achievements requested to move sideways (one function, one business unit or one country to another), or up (increased responsabilities, position or salary). One of the best example I have seen so far is the classical map from the French ONISEP (organization for the orientation of students), as you can find examples below. Other techniques could be using mind maps or radial maps,

Onisep : orientation apres la classe de 3e


Onisep : orientation apres le bac

  • Update and interactivity : for the data to remain consistent over time (such cataloging requires excessive amount of resources to “audit” the workforce that can only be done once every few years), and to be truly useful to others than HR professionnals in charge of career management and training planning (for example to search a person with specific skills and experience for a task, or to share best practices), a company should add another layer using folksonomies, and a visualization / navigation interface (see my previous post)

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Maps and metaphors : a love story between the web and the metro

Posted on October 2, 2008. Filed under: Blogroll, Designers, English, maps, MindMap, Serendipity |

Once again the metro / subway / underground metaphor to map websites and blogs. Here is the recent (Sept 2008) creation of Claude Aschenbrenner (Serial-Mapper blog), and maps his selection of visual thinkers blogs, in France and abroad. Thank you Claude for including me in such a nice company (between E. Tufte and J. Veronis) !!

by blog name :

Map of visual thinkers blogs by url

by blogger’s name :

Map of visual thinkers blogs by name

The PDF version of the map is interactive, each node is clickable to access directly the blog on internet, it was done using Adobe Illustrator after collecting all blog urls and sorting them in a MindMap using Mindomo.

Using the metro metaphor, you remember the famous web2.0 map from the Japanese agency Information Architects (updated 2008) :

Information Architects web2 map

The other metaphor often used to map a web territory is the planisphere (see my previous article), and the last good examples I’ve seen were the ones from :


Map of online communities


Map of the internet


  • designer Christophe Druaux (blog Oui Non) for his detailed (subjective but with heavy number crunching) maps of the French “blogarchie” (2007 edition) and Forums

Map of the French blogarchie


Map of the French forums


And last but not least, a more artistic version by Berling artist eBoy, using the city and pixelart to present web2.0 services :

eBoy FooBar poster


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De-constructing and visualizing complexity : film plotlines and music tracks mashups

Posted on September 8, 2008. Filed under: BI, English, maps, Medias, MindMap, Video | Tags: , , , |

In a world of increasing complexity, both from an information perspective (infobesity) and from a consumer demand (ultrachoice), building new products, or understanding competitors, request new business intelligence visualization metaphors for GeoTime analysis.

Readers of thrillers have come to recognize one of the recipes for best sellers : never let the heat down ! Writers build their writing with multiple tracks in parallel (ver far away from the time and place unity from traditional theater), those plots intersecting unexpectedly for added drama. I have briefly written about it in the short notes from the VizThink 08 conference I attended last Winter. I found a very simple example (used here as a working paper) on a fiction writer’s blog :

Plotting the romance

Traditional plotlines were very simple, following a typical dramactic structure with a beginning, a rising action, a climax, followed by a falling action and a denouement. More modern plotlines are more oscillating, as shown below. A graphical guidebook/method for students to structure and tell a story can be found here.

Typical dramatic structureOscillating dramatic structure

Reading from the last Wired issue I came across a beautiful example for the music industry (Mashup DJ Girl Talk last piece “Feeding the Animals”). Many music artists have become experts at sampling (hip-hop, Rythm’ Blues, …) or mixing (electro, …), and it takes keen ears to catch the building blocks.

Wired 16.09 Girl Talk

An interesting research piece on the building of narratives in contemporary films gives another example of using plotlines in the creative process, here on the analysis of alternative futures. Note that this could easily be done using a Mind Mapping software, and that a lot has already been said on the use of Mind Mapping tools in creativity.

Graphing alternate futures in a fim narrative

And for those of you who want to get a deeper understanding of the visualization of events / stories in space and time, there is this excellent research paper. Ihave particularly liked this graph, which will probably remind you of the famous “Retreat from Russia” chart beloved by Tufte 😉

A concept sketch of an annotated GeoTime scene representing the events of a fictional story.

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Carto2.0 : meet the French Visual Thinkers !

Posted on May 30, 2008. Filed under: BI, conference, English, maps, network_map, Outils, Search, Tagcloud |

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Le programme détaillé du colloque Carto2.0 est disponible

Posted on March 31, 2008. Filed under: conference, Francais, heatmaps, maps, Tagcloud, treemaps |

Carto 2.0 

Vous y trouverez une bio de tous les intervenants et une synthèse de leurs interventions. Pour ma part je participe à la table-ronde "Cartographie et débats" de 13h45 à 15h15 avec Alain Garnier et Thomaso Venturini, et j'y parlerai du sujet "Les interfaces de navigation pour les sites d'information" (cf mon précédent article dans ce blog).

Téléchargez le programme détaillé et la carte synthétique de la journée.

A jeudi à Marne la Vallée ! 

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Latest news : conferences about information cartography and visual thinking

Posted on January 22, 2008. Filed under: conference, Designers, English, maps, MindMap, PowerPoint |

Just a quick post to share with you some info you may already be aware of … or not.

I am happy to be leaving this week-end for the VizThink conference in San Francisco, where I will have the opportunity to meet and exchange with some leading advocates of knowledge design such as Dave Gray of XPlane (co-host of this event, see his blog), Cliff Atkinson (author of the book Beyond Bullet Points on PowerPoint, featured in my Amazon wishlist … and already in my library ;-)), Nigel Holmes (former Graphics Director at Time Magazine and author of numerous books), Harlan Hugh (CEO and co-founder of TheBrain, probably the first company that create a visual information management system to search and categorize data), some graphic facilitators (Dan Rose, Christine Valenza, …) and some other keynote speakers. I will take some pictures and jot some notes to be shared with you.


Another conference, this time in France, is scheduled for April 3rd 2008. It is Carto2.0, a conference on information cartography hosted by the ESIEE engineering school in the East of Paris. Papers can be submitted before Jan 25th (see more here). Keynote speakers will include Frédéric LeBihan (co-founder of Petillant, the first "mind mapping school" in France), Claude Aschenbrenner (a blogger I had the pleasure to have lunch with last summer and who directed me to this event), Christophe Tricot (blogger and researcher at Mondeca, a KM solutions editor), Laurent Baleydier (CEO of Kartoo, one of the pioneers of visual search engines), and some more …



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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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