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Making the Page Think like a Network, Part 3

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A basic hurdle in making a Web page "think" like a network is the page itself. Barry Chudakov shows how to use a concept he calls Orbital Information Management Maps to create multiple, dynamically changing perspectives and enhance the depth and usability of information.

This series of articles is excerpted from a New Riders title currently in development, A Blinding Glimpse of Everything: Designing Information for the Multidimensional Web, by Barry Chudakov (ISBN 0735713138). To provide feedback or comment on this article, please contact the author: informassociates@cfl.rr.com

To download a PDF version of this article (Adobe Acrobat required), click here.

A basic hurdle to making the page think like a network is the page itself. The page is the natural form or container for the alphabetic matrix. This form also has inherent drawbacks.

In this article, I'll review the basics of adding a unique style of Information Balcony to any kind of information. I call this type of information overview Orbital Information Management Maps, or OIM2. Using OIM2 creates multiple, dynamically changing perspectives. These maps remedy some of the page's drawbacks while greatly enhancing the depth and usability of information.

Alphabetical and Orbital Information Compared

Information on the Web—and in other digital environments—behaves differently than information on the printed page. To be truly effective, our formatting should account for this difference.

Today information is generated omnidirectionally. However, like time's arrow, the alphabetic matrix goes only in one direction at a time. The alphabetic matrix actually hides information's relational powers. Conversely, seeing information as objects revolving in orbits—circular, interactive, interdependent, interconnected—creates a much more effective conceptual framework for information.

An object can be any thing or any body of information. An orbit is where the object lives and moves. In the same orbital diagram you can mix things and bodies of information because, for the purposes of information management, they function identically. For example, in an orbital diagram you could have a series of hotels (things) and also hotel pricing, access, geographical, and marketing data (bodies of information). Each object can have its own orbit.

Figure 1 shows a typical Web-based alphabetical information presentation. This is a home page from the About.com Web site.

Figure 1Figure 1 Current home page for About.com.

Now view the same information presentation in an orbital format. Note that orbital diagrams can be designed in multiple configurations. In Figure 2 we see an example of a gyroscopic design, but other configurations can be employed.

Figure 2Figure 2 One possible orbit-based version of the About.com home page. Primary menu topics are arranged as objects moving about a user-defined center rather than as an alphabetic list. Note that in this interface, we have incorporated an OIM2 window. In typical window fashion, it opens up into an existing environment.

Here are a few ways to compare and contrast the two information presentations.

  • Note that, for the most part, the organizing principle of the current site is alphabetic.

  • The organizing principle of the orbital site is configured by the user topically, conceptually, and in other ways.

  • On the current site there are a few news items posted at the top of the home page and a Top 10 list down the right side.

  • These news items and Top 10 list would still appear below the (transparent) orbital balcony; however, highlighting any topic would provide the user with an array of orbital connectivity providing context, navigation, location, and relational support.

  • On the current site there is a search feature (Find It Now), Resources and Partners. But otherwise, the primary means of relating to this information is to proceed from A to Z.

  • The orbital site is built relationally so that you see how other information is related at a glance: Relational information is on or connected to the orbit you're viewing.

  • The current site gives little or no guided navigation around the site.

  • The orbital site is designed for motion; a trackball provides navigational guidance.

  • The current site does not allow the user to personalize the information, provide a sense of context for the information, or suggest that another context might be more useful.

  • Information presented in orbits can be viewed from various angles—as though you looked at the Earth first from the moon, then from Mars, and finally from the middle of the Milky Way. In other words, orbital views give you topsight, insight, oversight, and what we might describe as surround-sight. This personalizes information and provides a wealth of context options.

It is tempting to view these home page comparisons and choose sides. You cast information either in the alphabetic matrix or in objects and orbits. However, here is where the Information Balcony shows its utility. We can have both the alphabetic matrix and the management of that matrix; orbital maps' transparency allows us to see content and management of that content in one view.

OIM2 does not repeat the functions already presented in words. It gives conceptual oversight and mobility to information. Facts in motion is a fundamentally new way to consider information: Information is not static, but dynamic. (On the Web we're never only in one place; we're connected coming and going.) We see this today on news channels and sports broadcasts, with the information crawl at the bottom of the screen, and on the Web with pop-up screens. But this is just the beginning.

Note that in Figure 3 there are a number of ways to navigate through this information. The information is personalized to you (here, you are Eric), and all objects are related by their orbital configuration. You can see at a glance that it is virtually impossible not to be related because the object/orbit configuration is itself a relational statement. Moreover, because orbits exist in relation to other orbits, you see relatedness by both highlighting and concentric orbital configurations.

Figure 3Figure 3 Here the focal point of this customized map is the user himself. In this PERSONAL orbit we would typically find personal documents, graphics, audio files, and so on. Note that you can still see other orbits on the site; the active orbit is indicated by a darker color.

Many types of information can be enhanced by visualizing information as objects operating within orbits. For some clients (in this case, the Disney Corporation), we would graphically represent perceptions of the guest experience to look like the orbital diagrams in Figure 4. These OIM2 use orbits presented in a spirograph. (These OIM2 were designed by Steve Johnston of 2820 Design.)

Figure 4Figure 4 These are three views of the same information for the Disney Corporation. The difference is that the information is viewed from different perceptive centers.

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