Information Design and Manipulation

A fascinating paper by Bret Victor (via Stephen Downes) provides an excellent analysis, and a debatable conclusion.

The analysis shows how inappropriately the interactive/ manipulative affordance of information technology is leveraged by today’s web information design. The interactive controls are abused for navigation and for narrowing down the context of the desired information, while they were originally built for creating and producing one’s own information. (I am less happy with dissection of information into consumption and production which seems too Tayloristic and does not fit to my view of active learning.) Anyway, the analysis is radical and plausible.

The conclusion, however, is to drastically reduce interaction here, and to have some intelligent algorithm guess the desired context, instead.

My wishes regarding better information tools are just the opposite. I would often like more manipulation possibilities with the information presented on the web, to go on and process it.

  • For instance, I often wish I could easily copy all the central terms of a page into a concept map (see an old posting) to rearrange them according to my emerging understanding of their similarities and relationships.

Apparently I have a more tolerant attitude towards the haptic aspects of information grasping and gripping. If a click or a move or a select operation or a toggle is clearly associated with a certain, delimited, logical unit of information, I even welcome such a manual action since it makes an abstract concept somehow tangible and helps grasping it (in the figurative and the literal sense).

  • For instance, I prefer the traditional three-pane view of my RSS reader, where I click and control each individual item in the titles list, over the newspaper view with its comprehensive unified news stream.

(On the other hand, I am quickly annoyed about overdone interactivity effects that do not have a topical correspondent or justification,

  • for instance, that links become underlined only after hovering,
  • or disrupting popup windows for an item’s longtext in a conceptmap).

Similarly, I do not mind a few clicks through related contexts on the trail to a desired page if these contexts are meaningful and accrete my sense of orientation. And

  • then I would love to have some of the traversed web nodes represented on a topic map to shift them around afterwards.

So, interaction can still be useful in information design. The cited paper is right that this is not before the information is presented and not when the information is just data or facts. But after the information is loaded, or if it is to be processed and digested and combined into new knowledge, then the direct manipulation paradigm has still a great potential.

The depicted opposite ideal conception of effortless, automatically selected, directly accessed, focussed, comprehensive, one click one page information, is not everyone’s preferred style, and IMO, information designers should stop to hunt for the one beatific presentation style.

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