Chris Dent

L505 Essay Session 2


Finding Proximity in the Web


In Information Architecture for the World Wide Web authors Rosenfeld and Morville suggest the “foundation of almost all good information architectures is a well-designed hierarchy.” (p. 37) Elsewhere in the same chapter they state “ambiguous organization supports [a] serendipitous mode of information seeking by grouping items in intellectually meaningful ways.” (p. 30) How, in the creation of an information resource, can we impose the excluding, exacting and tree-like structure of hierarchy—group things according to both intellectually constructed differences such as “about cats” as well as less subjective differences such as “title begins with the letter ‘c’”—while still allowing for multiple dimensions of serendipitous discovery?

The simple example of this kind of discovery is browsing in a library. A researcher goes to the catalog, finds a reference for a book and heads to the stacks. In the stacks s/he finds the originally desired book but it proves boring. Next to the original book, however, are several other potentially good books, of the same or a related subject.[1] This discovery is possible because the documents being pursued are physically accessible to the researcher. They exist in physical space where they can be found, fondled and chosen.

You can’t fondle a web site.[2] Regardless of the architecture imposed upon a web site a visitor cannot conceive of the architecture in any physical fashion. What can the designer do if they want to allow for unpredicted motion amongst their hierarchy of documents? Browsing in libraries works because we know what to expect. We know from a fairly early age how the books are arranged. We know, at least a little, what effect traveling amongst the stacks and floors of the library will have on the books. We can create relationships between true physical locations.

To get something similar from a web site or other electronic resource a designer has to apply a metaphor of some kind. It may be a simple common metaphor like papers in a filing cabinet or it could be something more complex like houses on a street. In either case there is a possibility of being able to move about: to the next paper and next room or next file folder and next house. The metaphor creates a sort of hierarchy.

Rosenfeld and Morville mention metaphor-driven architectures with a caution:

While metaphor driven exploration can be very useful while brainstorming, you should use caution when considering a metaphor-driven global organization scheme. First, metaphors, if they are to succeed, must be familiar to users…second, metaphors can introduce unwanted baggage or be limiting. (p. 33)

These cautions are true but miss out on a potentially important issue: any electronic information resource is already constrained and potentially limited by a fundamental metaphor. We view documents over the network as pages or screens. They are part of sites conceptualized as being somewhere. An HTML document is not what we see when we see a web page; we see instead something that has been rendered from some electronic twinkles.

What matters, within and without the metaphor, is a notion of proximity. Books are near to one another on a shelf. How is near defined in a metaphor? How is near defined in electronic twinkles? In what dimensions can we have near? In a metaphor of a filing cabinet near is generally accepted as previous or next in the organizational system. Near in time could be important too. When was this document added to the system? May I travel to the previous or next document in the dimension of time? Is the motion between the creation times of documents or between the modification times of documents? What other dimensions are there?

If we want, as the designers of an information resource, to allow for serendipitous discovery in our resource we should make a strong effort to imagine as many definitions and dimensions of proximity as will fit in our presentation metaphor. In addition we should allow some method by which the metaphor may be broken or stripped to allow for unexpected conceptions of the collection. If our metaphor doesn’t expose a certain dimension of proximity well, it may be valuable to allow the visitor to break free, get closer to the electronic twinkles and travel according to their own rules. Some sites will never need such an option and some visitors will never choose it, preferring the apparent “safety” of the metaphor. Those that do choose it, though, may form unexpected connections, reach surprising conclusions, and get more from the resource than they or the designers planned.

[1] Woe to the researcher at a library where general access to the stacks is restricted.

[2] Woe to the pornography site owners.