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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Crisis for dummies : a selection of cool infographics to help understand and explain further (Part 1)

Posted on March 3, 2009. Filed under: Bibliographie, English, History, Medias, Research, Video |


Crisis : we hear and read about it everyday … but it is hard not to get lost, not to lose track of events or context or historical background, and hard to understand as events unfold the links between them, the play of multiple actors’ interests, and untimately, hard to anticipate, plan for personal or business needs. This is expecially true as the news we get are … well news only ! Bits and pieces of a puzzle we get at some point of our day, sometime without the time to reflect and integrate these.

I have blogged before about 4 aspects of the modern media system (speed, image, multiplicity and “thunderingness” as French politician Michel Rocard put them) and how visualization could provide that added value to provide context, particularly difficult on TV. It was followed by a discussion with him via email and a presentation I made for my students on story telling and visualization. A growing part of the population got accustomed to managing multiple information feeds at the same time, which reflect in specific layout designs for TV news (see here) or enterprise dashboards (see Stephen Few’s very good book on the latter : “Information Dashboard Design“).

 So I turned to economics and information visualization leading press outlets (Financial Times, New York Times, The Economist, French magazines Le Point, L’Expansion, …), TV news services, blogs and document sharing sites (Slideshare, Vimeo,  …) to collect a few of the most self-explanatory examples I could find. I have organized them in different categories :

  • History : trends and cycles

  • Stock Markets  :  graphical analysis and company valorization

  • Politics : public plans and social issues

But first, let’s start with an explanatory video (via Coolinfographics) :


The Crisis of Credit Visualized from Jonathan Jarvis on Vimeo.


It remembers me (in a nicer way of course) of one presentation (subprime primer) I got via email some months ago, to explain what sub-primes, CDO, CDS etc… mean, with simple sketches / a cartoon of a banker talking to another banker and devising the sub-prime scheme. In such cases email attachments are still the best way to circulate documents 🙂

Today I will publish the first part :

History :

Business cycles are commonly known since their creation in the XIXth century (notably by French statistician Clement Juglar, but also Kondratief, Kitchin, etc…). Periods of growth and decline follow each other, and looking at it from different “zoom” levels allow for a better understanding of the context.

In the case of the current crisis, several sets of data are to be looked at, whether they represent cause or effect I will not get into the debate, I have just chosen them because they are self-explanatory and in a way they enhance the dramatic aspects of the current situation. If I have not chosen less dramatic charts, it is because I wanted to make a point (like I did with “An Inconvenient Truth”) : the editorial decision to pick one or another, to zoom on a detail, change the scale, etc… plays a key role in conveying a certain message for certain benefits.

 US Housing market

We see that trees (here housing prices), can climb to the sky 🙂


That a very clever ;-( financial innovation (sub-prime lending in CDO) definitely had a big success

US Debt to GDP

And that it happened in a liberal context of massive national debt growth, all that money coming from foreign investors.

 Decoupling finance from the economy

That somehow the link between those CDS/CDOs and the “real” market got lost in mad speculation, a loop feeding on itself

Credit vs GDP

So the real ratio of debt to GDP was somehow worse …

 Share of Financial Industry profit

And it was clear who was getting the larger share …


A process called “financialization” everybody thought was the sign of developped countries like us ;-(

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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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Speed, image, multiplicity and “thunderingness” : 4 aspects of the modern media system

Posted on August 31, 2008. Filed under: conference, English, Francais, Medias | Tags: |

Two days ago concluded MEDEF’s 2008 Summer University. Hosted this year on Polytechnique’s campus South of Paris, it is a privileded time at the end of French’s long summer holidays before the start of September’s “back-to-school” rush. Several thousands entrepreneurs gather to listen and learn from leaders and experts, to share experience and start conversations, with an objective to change the ways business and management are thought.
Like last year, I attended some of the conferences and chose to share one with you, and bring to you the conversation that started last Thursday evening on images and medias.
During a conference on the power of medias (“when medias discredit, when medias allow”, see the full 1h30 conference soon here), the moderator (French journalist and former TV anchorman Guillaume Durand), asked former Prime Minister Michel Rocard about the role of medias in democracy’s improvement.

After a short introduction on a personal anecdote on the limits of freedom of speech (when national defense was endangered by medias during the first Gulf war), Michel Rocard presented the 2 main roots of the terrible disagreement between decision-takers (politics and entrepreneurs) and commentators :
– an event is part of a concept and a history, a continuum with a future hope, a goal, and does not exist only on its own, with its own beginning and end, as commentators present it,
– medias need to be profitable, to attract audience and advertisers, and information is not a neutral public service as politics would sometime like.
Why is it so difficult ? Michel Rocard suggests 4 reasons :
– speed : the system requests decision-takers to comment before having the time to analyze the information in its context,
– image : the development of images favor emotions, drama, and exclude contextual information
– multiplicity and competition : because of the noise produced by so many actors (information theory), medias are competing for attention
– “thunderingness” (“tonitruance” in French) : is a version of the growing invasion of privacy

Let’s concentrate on his opinion on image and relay his request to validate his hypothesis to scientifics and researchers such as Alain Berthoz (professor at College de France, member of the Academy of Sciences, director of the LPPA and specialist of cognition issues), Andre Gunthert (director of the laboratory of contemporary visual history at EHESS, see his blog). His original words :

Je voudrais formuler l’hypothèse – mais je demande à l’université, à la science de vérifier cette hypothèse – l’image ne fait pas travailler les même neurones qu’un texte écrit. Devant un texte écrit on peut prendre le temps de relire à une phrase qu’on n’a pas compris, voire de se lever pour aller chercher un dictionnaire ou un atlas. L’image passe à toute allure, et l’image ne laisse pas le temps d’approfondir l’intellectualité, la compréhension. De cela résulte que l’image ne peut techniquement – c’est pas la faute des journalistes donc la guerre est inutile – l’image ne peut colporter que de l’émotif, de l’affectif, du dramatique. Elle ne peut pas transporter d’information de contexte.

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