Posted by: structureofnews | October 28, 2012

What Comes Naturally

We all know – more or less – how stories go: There’s a beginning, a middle and an end, some suspense, a cohesiveness, etc.   You can argue that narrative is an innate structure that humans are hard-wired for, or that it’s a learned form that we take on from an early age; but it’s certainly widespread enough to assume it’s something anyone can understand.

But what about graphics, user interfaces and data visualization?  What’s intuitive, what’s learned, and how much can we expect people to know, especially if they come across (or we come up with) a new – potentially powerful – way of communicating information that they haven’t seen before?

That question came to mind when I asked a friend to look at a data visualization project and to tell me how intuitive he felt the interface was; how much he could figure out for himself, and how much I needed to explain to him (or how many explainer videos he’d have to watch.)  It’s a unsettling experience – not unlike having someone read your draft of a story for the first time and wondering if it makes sense. Except scarier.

Which must be how the designers of Windows 8 are feeling – and, according to the reviews that have come out, they might have been right to be scared.  (David Pogue, in the New York Times, praises the tablet-friendly nature of half the OS, but calls the two-headed beast “superimposed, muddled mishmash.”)

There’s a fascinating Fast Company piece from about a month or so ago that looks at the Windows 8 design more broadly in terms of the shifts in design and user interface trends – and while there isn’t much mention there of things like visual journalism or information graphics, it’s relevant to how far we can push the boundaries into new forms of information design while not losing readers/users.  As it notes:

For years, software has followed the same formula: The user interface mimics a real-life desktop, with documents filed in folders and pictographic icons that act as visual metaphors of a software program’s function. It’s a legacy of the graphical user interface (GUI) popularized in the 1980s by Apple.

(And just to draw the obvious point: Data visualization and information graphics are all about user interfaces. Arguably, so too are some forms of digital journalism. (Politifact and Homicide Watch owe key parts of their functionality to how their sites are designed.)

Using those visual metaphors – skeuomorphism – helped bridge that old world and the new digital world, making it easier for users to get accustomed to computers.  But are we over that now, at least in terms of the desktop/tablet interface?  Do we still need faux leather notebook covers on our screens to help us navigate virtual files? Microsoft, apparently, thinks not.  Or at least, the designers of the tablet side of the OS, called Metro.

Gone are the icon-studded toolbars and drop-down menus and artificial glassy reflections; Windows 8 emphasizes a stripped-down user interface that’s flat and without flourish.

As in Bauhaus design, with its fidelity to the essence of materials, the most innovative element of Metro is its shift away from visual metaphors.

In other words, it’s making a bet that we’ve all become sufficiently digitally native that we don’t need old – sometimes out-of-date – metaphors to keep us comfortable.   The piece quotes  Gadi Amit, founder of design agency NewDealDesign.

“My teenage daughter has never seen some of these GUI metaphors,” says Amit. “She doesn’t use a Rolodex or the calendar my grandmother used 50 years ago.”

Will it work?  Who knows?  The initial reviews aren’t great, and enough people don’t seem to feel the new interface is intuitive for them – despite this viral video of a three-year-old who apparently mastered it without much effort.  So what lessons are there for journalists who want to push the boundaries of information design?  How far ahead can we be of our audience?

What’s actually truly intuitive about user interfaces?  True, when a baby starts trying to interact with a printed magazine with her finger, you can make a good case that touching and swiping are pretty basic skills.  But certainly using a mouse isn’t; I still recall, years ago, when my then-three- or four-year-old daughter suddenly grasped the concept that she could affect a cursor on the screen with her hand off-screen.  It’s not immediately obvious.  (Remember Star Trek’s Scotty trying to talk to a 20th-century Apple mouse in another one of the unending series of Star Trek movies? Big yuks. Not.)

When the groundbreaking theyrule came out a while back, it wasn’t hard to quickly understand its hub-and-spoke layout that showed interconnectedness among corporate boards; what was trickier was to create a narrative flow that helps immerse people deeper into initial visualizations.  And going beyond simple relationships starts to make charts much more complex much more quickly, and it’s not clear to me anyone has yet come up with a form that the average person grasps immediately.

Just as there are also any number of great new visualizations that crop up regularly that are both visually stunning as well as richly informative – but only if you take the time to study them.   Part of the problem is the pace of evolution and change; there’s much less of an agreed grammar of data visualization than there is certainly for text narratives. That’s why giving readers hooks they’re familiar with can bring them into a piece; and adopting digital game techniques might be able to suck them in deeper, once they’re in.

But it’s a fine line to draw.  It’s election season in the US, and we’re again deluged with electoral maps of all stripes, from polling results to unemployment rates to advertising spend.  There’s tons of information in those charts, but maps are probably one of the least helpful ways to visualize them – in many cases, the physical location of the state (which is what maps show) isn’t material to the data.  But the make the graphics much more accessible to readers, who can – so to speak – map the new information on top of a familiar structure.

When will we be able to move past some of these comfortable metaphors – the same way (or, hopefully not exactly the same way) the Windows 8 designers have tried to step past the classic desktop structure – so we can harness more effective navigation systems?


  1. Speaking of superannuated imagery, why do Office applications continue to picture the Save command with a floppy disk?

    • Abbott, I still have some of those… Reg

  2. […] a short, follow up piece to the other day’s post on how tethered to the past digital design needs to be:  Today’s NYT has a nice piece that […]

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