Zooming is overrated

For the last release of my thought condensr tool, I had to think a lot about zooming. Besides text zooming — which was certainly important — the question was: Should I try to zoom the map, i.e., offer to edit the visual overview on different zoom levels?

Many people are enthusiastic about the ‘Big Picture’ attitude. Some even quote Dyson’s distinction between birds (who “fly high”) and frogs (who “live in the mud”).

A boss flying above a landscape, and some frogs sitting near the bottom.Photo credit: Flickr user youdid2, cc-by-nc-sa.

But I am sceptical, and I doubt that such a detached view of a ‘Big’ picture can be the necessary rich picture. It must leave out a lot, and usually there is a predetermined hierarchy that controls what to show and what to hide.

A geographical map, for example, needs some cartographic generalisation for zooming out: the labels of the big towns must be bigger than the others, and the smaller towns are gradually omitted, just as the smaller rivers and streets vanish. Otherwise there would be no orientation possible on the larger area. (This is why Google maps are becoming unusable: because the locations of the advertisers cause ever more clutter.) And this hierarchy may have distorted the rich picture already.

In my tool, there is no pre-existing hierarchy. On the contrary: it tries to facilitate an overview without premature hierarchy-building and pigeon-holing. And it has a different approach to handling the relationship between overview and detail: all the overview on the (visual) left pane, all details on the right (text) pane.

So, my new ‘bird’s eye view’ is just for making long-distance moves easier — not for withdrawn attitudes.

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