Archive for March 2006

Metaphors for Web 2.0? Web as ENVIRONMENT

March 22nd, 2006 — 5:49pm

I just read Dan Brown’s post­ing Web 2.0, refram­ing Web 1.0 on metaphors for the new Web.
I had three thoughts when I read this (nicely done) piece for the first time:

  1. Web itself is or implies a metaphor — I’d start with this when con­sid­er­ing any of the poten­tial metaphors of Web 2.0
  2. I think many metaphors will be nec­es­sary to give us some set of (barely) ade­quate lin­guis­tic tools for shar­ing our think­ing about some­thing as emer­gent, com­plex, and inter­con­nected with daily life as Web 2.0
  3. How about: WEB AS ENVIRONMENT (“the cir­cum­stances, objects, or con­di­tions by which one is surrounded”)

WEB AS ENVIRONMENT => Set­ting for (vir­tual) life => enabler of goals / needs / pat­terns [thus bring­ing the social aspect into focus]

Comment » | Ideas

Tag Clouds: Navigation For Landscapes of Meaning

March 14th, 2006 — 4:53pm

I believe the value of sec­ond gen­er­a­tion clouds will be to offer ready nav­i­ga­tion and access to deep, com­plex land­scapes of mean­ing built up from the cumu­la­tive seman­tic infor­ma­tion con­tained in many inter­con­nected tag clouds. I’d like share some thoughts on this idea; I’ll split the dis­cus­sion into two posts, because there’s a fair amount of mate­r­ial.
In a pre­vi­ous post on tag clouds, I sug­gested that the great value of first gen­er­a­tion tag clouds is their abil­ity to make con­cepts and meta­data — seman­tic fields — broadly acces­si­ble and easy to under­stand and work with through visu­al­iza­tion. I believe the shift in the bal­ance of roles and value from first to sec­ond gen­er­a­tion reflects nat­ural growth in cloud usage and aware­ness, and builds on the two major trends of tag cloud evo­lu­tion: enhanced visu­al­iza­tion and func­tion­al­ity for work­ing with clouds, and pro­vi­sion of exten­sive con­tex­tual infor­ma­tion to accom­pany tag clouds.
Together, these two growth paths allow cloud con­sumers to fol­low the indi­vid­ual chains of under­stand­ing that inter­sect at con­nected clouds, and bet­ter achieve their goals within the infor­ma­tion envi­ron­ment and out­side. Fun­da­men­tally, I believe the key dis­tinc­tions between first and sec­ond gen­er­a­tion clouds will come from the way that clouds func­tion simul­ta­ne­ously as visu­al­iza­tions and nav­i­ga­tion mech­a­nisms, and what they allow nav­i­ga­tion of — land­scapes of mean­ing that are rich in seman­tic con­tent of high value.
For exam­ples of both direc­tions of tag cloud evo­lu­tion com­ing together to sup­port nav­i­ga­tion of seman­tic land­scapes, we can look at some of the new fea­tures has released in the past few months. I’ve col­lected three ver­sions of the infor­ma­tion archi­tec­ture of the stan­dard URL details page from the past seven months as an exam­ple of evo­lu­tion hap­pen­ing right now.
The first ver­sion (screen­shot and break­down in Fig­ure 1) shows the URL details page some­time before August 15th, 2005, when it appeared on Matt McAlister’s blog.
Fig­ure 1: URL Page — August 2005

The lay­out or infor­ma­tion archi­tec­ture is fairly sim­ple, offer­ing a list of the com­mon tags for the url / focus, a sum­mary of the post­ing his­tory, and a more detailed list­ing of the post­ing his­tory that lists the dates and tag­gers who book­marked the item, as well as the tags used for book­mark­ing. There’s no cloud style visu­al­iza­tion of the tags attached to this sin­gle focus avail­able: at this time, offered a ren­dered tag cloud visu­al­iza­tion at the aggre­gate level for the whole envi­ron­ment.
Envi­ron­ment and sys­tem design­ers know very well that as the scope and com­plex­ity of an envi­ron­ment increase — in this case, the num­ber of tag­gers, focuses, and tags, plus their cumu­la­tive his­to­ries — it becomes more impor­tant for peo­ple to be explic­itly aware of the con­text of any item in order to under­stand it prop­erly. Explicit con­text becomes more impor­tant because they can rely less and less on implicit con­text or assump­tions about con­text based on the uni­ver­sal aspects of the envi­ron­ment. This is how cloud con­sumers’ needs for clearly vis­i­ble and acces­si­ble chains of under­stand­ing dri­ves the fea­tures and capa­bil­i­ties of tag clouds. Later ver­sions of this page addresses these needs in dif­fer­ing ways, with dif­fer­ing lev­els of suc­cess.
Fig­ure 2 shows a more recent ver­sion of the his­tory for the ser­vice. This screen­shot taken about ten days ago in early March, while I was work­ing on a draft of this post.
Fig­ure 2: URL Page — Early March 2006

Key changes from the first ver­sion in August to this sec­ond ver­sion include:

  1. Chang­ing visu­al­iza­tion of the Com­mon Tags block to a cloud style rendering
  2. Remov­ing the indi­vid­ual tags cho­sen by each tag­ger from the Post­ing His­tory block
  3. The addi­tion of a large and promi­nent block of space devoted to “User Notes”
  4. Mov­ing the Post­ing His­tory block to the right column
  5. Chang­ing visu­al­iza­tion of the Post­ing His­tory block to a proto-cloud style rendering

The most impor­tant change in this sec­ond ver­sion is the removal of the indi­vid­ual sets of tags from the Post­ing His­tory. Sep­a­rat­ing the tags applied to the focus from asso­ci­a­ton with the indi­vid­ual tag­gers that chose them strips them of an impor­tant layer of con­text. Remov­ing the nec­es­sary con­text for the tag cloud breaks the chain of under­stand­ing (Fig­ure 3) link­ing tag­gers and cloud con­sumers, and obscures or increases the costs of the social con­cep­tual exchange that is the basic value of to its many users. In this ver­sion, cloud con­sumers con­sumers read­ing the URL details page can only find spe­cific tag­gers based on the con­cepts they’ve matched with this focus by vis­it­ing or nav­i­gat­ing to each indi­vid­ual tag­gers’ area within the larger envi­ron­ment one at a time.
Fig­ure 3: Chain of Under­stand­ing
The switch to ren­der­ing the Com­mon Tags block as a tag cloud is also impor­tant, as an indi­ca­tor of the con­sis­tent spread of clouds to visu­al­ize seman­tic fields, and their grow­ing role as nav­i­ga­tion tools within the larger land­scape.
The User Notes are a good exam­ple of an attempt to pro­vide addi­tional con­tex­tual infor­ma­tion with (poten­tially) high value. User Notes are cre­ated by users exclu­sively for the pur­pose of pro­vid­ing con­text. The other forms of con­text shown in the new lay­out — the Post­ing His­tory, Related Items — serve a con­tex­tual func­tion, but are not cre­ated directly by users with this goal in mind. The dif­fer­ence between the two pur­poses for these items undoubt­edly influ­ences the way that peo­ple cre­ate them, and what they cre­ate: it’s a ques­tion that more detailed inves­ti­ga­tions of tag­ging prac­tices will surely exam­ine.
The third ver­sion of the same URL his­tory page, shown in Fig­ure 4, was released very shortly after the sec­ond, prov­ing tag cloud evo­lu­tion is hap­pen­ing so quickly as to be dif­fi­cult to track delib­er­ately on a broad scale.
Fig­ure 4: URL Page — March 2006 #2

This ver­sion changes the con­tent and lay­out of the Post­ing His­tory block, restor­ing the com­bined dis­play of indi­vid­ual tag­gers who tagged the URL, with the tags they applied to it, in the order in which they tagged the URL for the first time.
The third ver­sion makes two marked improve­ments over the first and sec­ond versions:

  1. Pre­sen­ta­tion of the indi­vid­ual chains of under­stand­ing that inter­sect with this focus / cloud in nav­i­ga­ble form, to increase aware­ness of the con­text for this item and allow users to retrace these paths to their origins
  2. Pre­sen­ta­tion of indi­vid­ual tag­gers’ flat­tened clouds that inter­sect this focus as nav­i­ga­tion mech­a­nisms for mov­ing from the cur­rent focus to else­where within the larger landscape

These three dif­fer­ent ver­sions of the URL details page show that the amount and type of con­tex­tual infor­ma­tion accom­pa­ny­ing a sin­gle focus is increas­ing, and that the num­ber of con­crete nav­i­ga­ble con­nec­tions to the larger seman­tic land­scape of which the focus is one ele­ment also increas­ing
Over­all, it’s clear that clouds are quickly emerg­ing as nav­i­ga­tion tools for com­plex land­scapes of mean­ing, and that cloud con­text has and will con­tinue to become more impor­tant for cloud cre­ation and use.
And so before dis­cussing the con­text nece­sary for clouds and the role of clouds as nav­i­ga­tion aids in more detail, it will be help­ful to get an overview of land­scapes of mean­ing, and how they arise.
Land­scapes of Mean­ing
A land­scape of mean­ing is a densely inter­con­nected, highly valu­able, exten­sive infor­ma­tion envi­ron­ment rich in seman­tic con­tent that is cre­ated by com­mu­ni­ties of tag­gers who build con­nected tag clouds. In the early land­scapes of mean­ing emerg­ing now, a con­nec­tion between clouds can be a com­mon tag, tag­ger, or focus: any one of the three legs of the Tag­ging Tri­an­gle required for a tag cloud (more on this below). Because tag clouds visu­al­ize seman­tic fields, con­nected tag clouds visu­al­ize and offer access to con­nected seman­tic fields, serv­ing as bridges between the indi­vid­ual accu­mu­la­tions of mean­ing each cloud con­tains.
Con­nect­ing hun­dreds of thou­sands of indi­vid­u­ally cre­ated clouds and fields, as has enabled social book­mark­ers to do by pro­vid­ing nec­es­sary tools and infra­struc­ture, cre­ates a very large infor­ma­tion envi­ron­ment whose ter­rain or geog­ra­phy is com­posed of seman­tic infor­ma­tion. Such a seman­tic land­scape is a land­scape con­structed or made up of mean­ing. It is an infor­ma­tion envi­ron­ment that allows peo­ple to share con­cepts or for social pur­poses of all kinds, while sup­ported with visu­al­iza­tion, con­tex­tual infor­ma­tion, func­tion­al­ity, and far-ranging nav­i­ga­tion capa­bil­i­ties.
The flickr Land­scape
flickr is a good exam­ple of a land­scape of mean­ing that we can under­stand as a seman­tic land­scape. In a pre­vi­ous post on tag clouds, I con­sid­ered the flickr all time most pop­u­lar tags cloud (shown in Fig­ure 5) in light of the basic struc­ture of clouds:
“The flickr style tag cloud is …a visu­al­iza­tion of many tag sep­a­rate clouds aggre­gated together. …the flickr tag cloud is the visu­al­iza­tion of the cumu­la­tive seman­tic field accreted around many dif­fer­ent focuses, by many peo­ple. …the flickr tag cloud func­tions as a visu­al­iza­tion of a seman­tic land­scape built up from all asso­ci­ated con­cepts cho­sen from the com­bined per­spec­tives of many sep­a­rate tag­gers.”
Fig­ure 5: The flickr All Time Most Pop­u­lar Tags Cloud

From our ear­lier look at the struc­ture of first gen­er­a­tion tag clouds we know a tag cloud visu­al­izes a seman­tic field made up of con­cepts referred to by labels which are applied as tags to a focus of some sort by tag­gers.
Based on our under­stand­ing of the struc­ture of a tag cloud as hav­ing a sin­gle focus, the flickr cloud shows some­thing dif­fer­ent because it includes many focuses. The flickr all time most pop­u­lar tags cloud com­bines all the indi­vid­ual tag clouds around all the indi­vid­ual pho­tos in flickr into a sin­gle visu­al­iza­tion, as Fig­ure 6 shows.
Fig­ure 6: The flickr Land­scape of Mean­ing

This means the flickr all time most pop­u­lar tags cloud is in fact a visu­al­iza­tion of the com­bined seman­tic fields behind each of those indi­vid­ual clouds. It’s quite a bit big­ger in scope than a tra­di­tional sin­gle focus cloud. Because the scope is so large, the amount of mean­ing it sum­ma­rizes and con­veys is tremen­dous. The all time most pop­u­lar tags cloud is in fact a his­toric win­dow on the cur­rent and his­tor­i­cal state of the seman­tic land­scape of flickr as a whole.
This is where con­text becomes crit­i­cal to the proper under­stand­ing of a tag cloud. The cloud title “All time most pop­u­lar tags” sets the con­text for this tag cloud, within the bound­aries of the larger land­scape envi­ron­ment defined and com­mu­ni­cated by flickr’s user epx­e­ri­ence. With­out this title, the cloud is mean­ing­less despite the large and com­plex seman­tic land­scape — all of the infor­ma­tion envi­ron­ment of flickr — it visu­al­izes so effec­tively, because cloud con­sumers can­not retrace a com­plete chain of under­stand­ing to cor­rectly iden­tify the cloud’s ori­gin.
flickr — 1st Gen­er­a­tion Land­scape Nav­i­ga­tion
The flickr cloud is a pow­er­ful nav­i­ga­tion mech­a­nism for quickly and eas­ily mov­ing about within the land­scape of mean­ing built up by all those thou­sands and thou­sands of indi­vid­ual clouds. Still, because it is a first gen­er­a­tion cloud, we can­not directly fol­low any of the many indi­vid­ual chains of under­stand­ing con­nect­ing this cloud’s tags back to spe­cific tag­gers, or the con­cepts they asso­ciate with spe­cific pho­tos or focuses. In this visu­al­iza­tion, the group’s under­stand­ing of mean­ing is more impor­tant than any individual’s under­stand­ing. And so the flickr cloud does not yet allow us com­pre­hen­sive nav­i­ga­tion of the under­ly­ing seman­tic land­scape illus­trated in Fig­ure 6 (chains of under­stand­ing sug­gested in light green). The flickr cloud also remains a first gen­er­a­tion tag cloud because users can­not con­trol its con­text.
Fig­ure 7: A Seman­tic Land­scape

Even so, these nav­i­ga­tional and con­tex­tual needs will help iden­tify the way that users rely on clouds to work in land­scapes of mean­ing.
Growth of Land­scapes
Land­scapes of mean­ing like flickr,, or the bur­geon­ing num­ber of social seman­tic busi­ness ven­tures debut­ing as I write — typ­i­cally grow from the bot­tom up, emerg­ing as dozens or thou­sands of indi­vid­ual tag clouds cre­ated for dif­fer­ent rea­sons by dif­fer­ent tag­gers coin­ci­den­tally or delib­er­ately inter­con­nect and over­lap, all of this hap­pen­ing through a vari­ety of social mech­a­nisms. Tag­gers typ­i­cally cre­ate con­nected or over­lap­ping tag clouds one at a time, adding tags, focuses, and tag­gers (by cre­at­ing new accounts) in the ad hoc fash­ion of open net­works and archi­tec­tures. But first we should look at the Tag­ging Tri­an­gle to under­stand the most basic ele­ments of a tag cloud.
The Tag­ging Tri­an­gle
To make a tag cloud, you have to have three ele­ments: a focus, a tag­ger, and a(t least one) tag. I call this the Tag­ging Tri­an­gle, illus­trated in Fig­ure 8. In the most com­mon ren­der­ings of famil­iar tag clouds, one or two of these ele­ments are often implied but not shown: yet all three are always present.
This illus­tra­tion shows a cloud of labels, not tags, because a ren­dered cloud is really a list of labels. The labels shown in most first gen­er­a­tion clouds are often tags, but struc­turally they could also be a set of names for tag­gers, as in the post­ing his­tory block proto-cloud we saw above, or a set of focuses as in the ‘Inverted Cloud’ I sug­gested.
Fig­ure 8: The Tag­ging Tri­an­gle
An Exam­ple Land­scape
A sim­ple exam­ple of the growth of seman­tic land­scapes leads nat­u­rally to the dis­cus­sion of spe­cific ways that tag clouds will enable nav­i­ga­tion within large land­scapes of mean­ing.
Fig­ure 9 shows the tag cloud accreted around a sin­gle focus. This cloud includes some of the tags that Tag­ger 1 has used in total across all the tag clouds she’s cre­ated (those other clouds aren’t shown). We’ll assume that she’s cre­ated other clouds for other focuses.
Fig­ure 9: A Sin­gle Tag Cloud

When a sec­ond per­son, Tag­ger 2, tags that same focus (again with a sub­set of the total set of all his tags), and some of those tags are the same as those used for this focus by Tag­ger 1, their indi­vid­ual tag clouds for this focus (shown by the dashed line in the cumu­la­tive tag cloud) con­nect via the com­mon tags, and the cumu­la­tive cloud grows. If any of the tags from their total sets are the same, but are not used for this focus, they form another con­nec­tion between the two tag­gers. Fig­ure 10 shows two indi­vid­ual clouds con­nected in both these ways.
Fig­ure 10: Two Con­nected Clouds

When a third tag­ger adds a third cloud with com­mon tags and unique tags around the same focus, the cumu­la­tive cloud grows, and the num­ber of both kinds of con­nec­tions between tags and tag­gers grows. Fig­ure 11 shows three con­nected clouds.
Fig­ure 11: Con­nected Clouds

Every tag cloud visu­al­izes a seman­tic field, and so the result of this bot­tom up growth is a series of inter­linked seman­tic fields cen­tered around a com­mon focus, as Fig­ure 12 shows. Since seman­tic fields are made of con­cepts, linked fields result in linked con­cepts.
Fig­ure 12: Con­nected Seman­tic Fields

The total num­ber and the vari­ety of kinds of inter­con­nec­tions amongst these three tag­gers, their tags, and a sin­gle focus is remark­able. As this sim­ple exam­ple shows, the total num­ber and den­sity of con­nec­tions link­ing even a mod­er­ate size pop­u­la­tion of tag­gers, tags, and focuses could quickly become very large. This increased scale dri­ves qual­i­ta­tive and quan­ti­ta­tive topol­ogy changes in the net­work that per­mit a land­scape of mean­ing to emerge from con­nected seman­tic fields.
Land­scapes And Depth
The accu­mu­la­tion of con­nec­tions and con­cepts cre­ates a land­scape of mean­ing with real depth; but it’s the depth of a land­scape that dri­ves its value. For this dis­cus­sion, I’m defin­ing depth loosely as the amount of seman­tic infor­ma­tion or the den­sity of the seman­tic field either across the whole land­scape, or at a cho­sen point.
Value of course is a very sub­jec­tive judge­ment. In par­tic­i­pa­tory economies like that of, the value to indi­vid­ual users is pre­dom­i­nantly one of loosely struc­tured seman­tic exchange based on accu­mu­la­tion of col­lec­tive value through shared indi­vid­ual efforts. From a busi­ness view­point, a group of investors and yahoo as a buyer saw con­sid­er­able value in the emer­gent land­scape and / or other kinds of assets
To make the idea of depth a bit clearer, Fig­ure 13 illus­trates two views of a seman­tic land­scape built up by the over­lap of tag clouds. The aer­ial view shows the con­tents, dis­tri­b­u­tion, and over­lap of a num­ber of tag clouds around a set of focuses. The hori­zon view shows the depth of the seman­tic field for each focus, based on the amount of over­lap or con­nec­tion between the cloud around that focus and all the other clouds.
Fig­ure 13: Seman­tic Land­scape Depth Views

Of course this is only a con­cep­tual way of show­ing the cumu­la­tive seman­tic infor­ma­tion that makes up a land­scape of mean­ing, so it does not address the rel­a­tive value of this infor­ma­tion. Plainly some indi­ca­tion of the qual­ity of the seman­tic infor­ma­tion in a land­scape is crit­i­cal impor­tant to mea­sure­ments of both depth and value. Met­rics for qual­ity could come from a com­bi­na­tion of assess­ment of the diver­sity and gran­u­lar­ity of the tag pop­u­la­tion for the focus, bench­marks for the domain of the focus and tag­gers (health­care indus­try), and an esti­mate on the matu­rity of the domain, the focus, and the tag clouds in the seman­tic land­scape.
Look­ing ahead, it’s likely that accepted met­rics for defin­ing and describ­ing the depth, value, and char­ac­ter­is­tics of seman­tic fields and land­scapes will emerge as new com­bi­na­tions of some of the mea­sure­ments used now in the realms of cog­ni­tive lin­guis­tics, set the­ory, sys­tem the­ory, topol­ogy, infor­ma­tion the­ory, and quite a few other dis­ci­plines besides.
In Part Two
The sec­ond post in this series of two will fol­low sev­eral of the top­ics intro­duced here to con­clu­sion, as well as cover some new top­ics, including:

  • How chains of under­stand­ing shape needs for cloud con­text and nav­i­ga­tion paths
  • How the tag­ging tri­an­gle will define nav­i­ga­tion within land­scapes of meaning
  • The emer­gence of strat­i­fi­ca­tion in land­scapes of meaning
  • The idea that clouds and land­scapes have a shape which con­veys mean­ing and value
  • The kinds of con­tex­tual infor­ma­tion and con­trols nec­es­sary for nav­i­ga­tion and social exchanges

Watch­ing Nav­i­ga­tion Fol­low Chains of Under­stand­ing
I’ll close with a screen­cast put together by Jon Udell that cap­tures a wide rang­ing nav­i­ga­tion path through the landscape.

Comment » | Ideas, Tag Clouds

Scatterplots As Page Shapes?

March 1st, 2006 — 4:25pm

The Feb­ru­ary edi­tion of Usabil­ity News reports on a usabil­ity study (Where’s the Search? Re-examining User Expec­ta­tions of Web Objects) of user expec­ta­tions for Web page lay­outs that con­tains a sur­pris­ing but inter­est­ing visu­al­iza­tion of page shapes, based on quan­ti­ta­tive user research. (Note: I found the study via the UI Design Newslet­ter, from HFI.)
The study looks at users” expec­ta­tions for the loca­tion of com­mon web page com­po­nents, such as site search and adver­tis­ing. The authors find that expec­ta­tions for page lay­outs are largely the same now, as com­pared to those found in an ear­lier study, Devel­op­ing Schemas for the Loca­tion of Com­mon Web Objects, con­ducted in 2001.
More inter­est­ing is the way the researchers report their results; visu­al­iz­ing them as heat map style grid plots for the expected loca­tion of each ele­ment vs. a blank grid. Here’s two exam­ples, the first show­ing expected loca­tions for ‘back to home’ links, the sec­ond for the ‘site search engine’.
Fig­ure 1: Back to Home Link Loca­tion
Fig­ure 2: Site Search Engine Loca­tion
These heat maps look a lot like page shapes, expressed as scat­ter­plots.
I like the com­bi­na­tion of quan­ti­ta­tive and qual­i­ta­tive per­spec­tives at work in these page shapes ren­dered as scat­ter­plots. I think it could allow for grounded dis­cus­sion and inter­pre­ta­tion of user feed­back on design options, within a clear and sim­ple struc­ture that doesn’t require an HCI degree to appre­ci­ate. If I try it out, I’ll share the out­comes.
In a more tra­di­tional style of visu­al­iza­tion, Eric Scheid found another another good exam­ple of page shapes a while back in Jonathon Boutelle’s post­ing on blog lay­outs called “Mullet”-style blog lay­out. Jonathon was advo­cat­ing for a new default blog page shape that increases infor­ma­tion den­sity and scent, but hews closely to pre-existing expec­ta­tions.
Fig­ure 3: Typ­i­cal Blog Page Shape
Fig­ure 4: Sug­gested Blog Page Shape
And that’s the last time I’m men­tion­ing m.u.l.l.e.t.s this year, lest Google get the wrong idea about the sub­ject mat­ter of this blog :)

2 comments » | Information Architecture, User Research

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