Sunday, March 20, 2005

Mind-Mapping and Spatial Information Navigation

Today's New York Times includes a story on mind-mapping software, "To-Do List: Shop, Pay Bills, Organize Brain." It suggests that to learn new topics, organize ideas and spur creative thinking, people should draw dynamic and unstructured "mind maps" rather than traditional lists and outlines:
Ever since high school, I have relied on classic I, II, III-style outlines to organize ideas. (The best computerized outliner, in my view, is still NoteMap, $149 from With MindManager, you create an outline not by writing out a list but by entering one main idea in the middle of the screen - and then having related ideas radiate out, with spokes. The subideas can have their own connections and nodes, and all parts of the maps can be easily linked to relevant side material - e-mail, Web pages, documents and so on.

It sounds gimmicky but seems less so in practice. Here is important news: MindManager's intellectual effect seems the opposite of PowerPoint's. As any veteran of business briefings knows, the visual tools in PowerPoint can blur distinctions and impose an artificial sameness on ideas. At a minimum, MindManager doesn't retard clear thinking, and it might actually help.

"For me, there is a big difference between laying out ideas in this kind of map" and just writing them in a list, says Michael Jetter, Mindjet's co-founder. "It's like when you look at ads. The white space can be as important as the words. I find when I am able to space out the ideas in a certain way, somehow I can move around them easily rather than starting from the top. It's the same information, but you look at it differently."
This article illuminates my critique of our current information interfaces. The dominant technology for organizing and navigating information on our computers is a two-dimensional and strictly hierarchical system. This is most obviously represented by the traditional "file tree" structure – each file has a single location and a single path to find it. Over recent decades, of course, numerous graphical computer interfaces and data management systems have been developed. The Mac/Windows operating systems invoke a graphical desktop metaphor to guide users in the manipulation and storage of files. Yet, even with is iconic focus, the fixed linearity of the textual interfaces of its command-line ancestors remain visible. Instead of truly immersing ourselves into the graphical potential of these interfaces, we still navigate them in a strong textual sense. One doesn’t think graphically about where files can be located in the interface. In reality, one thinks: I’m pretty sure I put it in the “Things to Do” folder, but maybe it’s in “Unfinished Business.” In other words, information is still organized textually, in terms of strict categories defined by the names of folders within the linear file management hierarchy.

Apple’s experimental HotSauce interface, on the other hand, attempts to move beyond two-dimensions into a more immersive and spatial three-dimensional interface. In HotSauce, your documents are presented as a galaxy of interrelationships between themes, not in a strict hierarchy of folders. The user is able to zoom in and out of the “constellations” to understand how files are related to each other and retrieve data relevant to their search. Buy prioritizing a spatial and three-dimensional method of understanding and navigating the data in your computer, HotSauce presents a break from the traditional hierarchical information interfaces. With the increased sophistication of virtual environments, augmented reality and other “off-the-desktop” technologies, three-dimensional user interface design has become a critical area for researchers to understand.

Another example of a spatial information navigational system comes from the search engine tools used to help navigate the World Wide Web. While Berners-Lee understood the human mind’s ability to link random bits of data and envisioned an online information-space where anything could be linked to anything else – a web of information, his vision has only been partially achieved given the current navigational tools. While the Web is made up of seemingly infinite links among information sites, our navigation of that space remains rooted in the linear, hierarchical interface of the search engine. The results of searches are listed textually with a built-in presumption of what should be clicked on first; then you click the “Back” button to return; then you click on the next site, and so on. These static lists provide no sense of the interrelationships between data on the Web – there is no depth, only length.

By contrast, consider the experimental search engine, which displays the results of searches through visual and spatial relationships. Using varying colors and shapes to simulate three-dimensional depth, Kartoo presents search results on a cartographic map to help the user visualize the associative relationship between sources of information and other key terms related to their search. Holding the mouse over any topic on the map draws visual links to the related sites, and moving over a site reveals links to the relevant keywords. A similar graphical search engine interface that presents information in a spatial map is Grokker, offered by Groxis. These dynamic web search engine interfaces improve navigation by visually mapping the associative links between sets of information, allowing users to move even further away from the ‘hierarchical straitjacket’ Berners-Lee reviled.

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