By Joe Sokohl
We recently went hiking on the Blue Ridge Parkway for a few hours. Stopping at the Rocky Knob Visitor’s Center, we chatted with the ranger about hikes nearby. He gave us a map, showing us where each trail was as well as the closed trail. He mentioned which parts were strenuous and where we’d cross a pasture that might have cows in it (it didn’t).
He pointed us to the beginning of the path, an opening in the trees. “Now, go through there, then cross over the Parkway, and continue till you come to this fork,” he said, as he also showed me where the fork was on the map.
We had a great hike…and we didn’t get lost.
He could have shown us a detailed topographical map, indicating the elevations we’d traverse. He could have shown us an aerial photograph with all the bushes and trees and pastures and fences and boulders—but none of that detail was what I needed. Instead, his simple map showing us the major landmarks and directions of travel were all we needed.
We’ve accepted the metaphor of map-as-information-guide for decades now. Kahn & Lenk published Mapping Websites 15 years ago. This beautiful work illustrated what the landscape of the web looked like then—and has analogies for today.
O’Reilly Press just published Jim Kalbach’s wonderful Mapping Experiences. It provides practical ways to arrange research findings and experience insights into ways that make sense to project stakeholders.
Yet we never seem to engage with what a map does, what a map means, and why choices in designing with a map in mind help users. I like to look at cartography in itself as well as its analogy to information spaces of non-physical—but no less real—existence.
So, what is a map? The U.S. Army defined it as “a two-dimensional representation of the earth’s surface as seen from above.” While that’s true for most geographical maps, it doesn’t get to the root behind it: Maps are abstractions of reality, organized for sense-making.
Alberta Soranzo said, “Metaphorically speaking, information systems are like geographical maps of cities, with their interconnected systems and infrastructures.” We can see this analogous view of systems applying to information architecture, but we also see this view related to interaction design and its user flows: Where do I go? Where am I now?
Maps contain abstractions of locational information. At the 2015 Information Architecture Summit, Paul Rissen talked about how his friend gave him a map of stuff to see in Boston: Just enough detail to understand where things were, but not so much detail as to get lost.
And that seems to be the problem of so many of the experiences we design (or, should I say, are designed). Too often, we include too much detail and not enough abstraction.
Recently, I heard a Hewlett Packard commercial touting the value of Big Data. At the end of a plethora of visuals showing exact pieces of data, the camera moved to two executives talking. The one says, “Aren’t you going to round that figure up?” The other says, “You don’t round facts.”
Of course you do. You summarize facts and figures and content for the context in which it is to be used. A true human-centered design approach determines first who is going to use something and then the context in which it’ll be used.
As UX designers, we need to understand the context of use along with the person who’s using the thing we’re designing. A key element is the way we map users’ mental models to the content and the interaction objects we afford them. Too much detail at the wrong time, and users get overwhelmed and lost. Too little, and they get frustrated. “I know it should be here…but I can’t find it!” they’ll moan, in either case.
The road signs and markers of headings, indents, icons, and other signposts we digitally provide all help. Yet we also need to take a cartographer’s approach of looking at the entire landscape of information we’re presenting and then determine the right level of abstraction.
Instead of presenting all the data all the time, as local weather folks do just because they can, show just enough to help people meet their goals.
Use progressive disclosure to allow people to engage with content as their context shifts. And respect the user’s goals above the technology’s capabilities.
Let’s not commit the sin of fetishizing technology and data at the expense of users.
If you’d like to explore the challenges of presenting just the right amount of information to users at just the right time, I suggest you plan on attending the following sessions at edUi:
- Scoping out success for your users: When more options lead to less confusion with Emily King
- Library websites should help you discover…the library with Josh Boyer and Angie Fullington
- Rethinking “Services”: A User-Centered Taxonomy with Angie Fullington
- Designing Future-Friendly Content with Carrie Hane
About the Author
For 20 years, Joe Sokohl has concentrated on crafting excellent user experiences, using content strategy, information architecture, interaction design, and user research. He helps companies effectively integrate user experience into product development. In addition, he’s led teams as small as three in the same room to as large as 25 across three countries and six sites. Follow him at @RegJoeConsults.