Comments on Mapping Memory: Web Designer as Information Cartographer

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  1. Today I watched a video of a man from ThemeZoom contradicting “The Master Plan”. He said the information architecture was all wrong, even though “The Master Plan” was endorsed by ThemeZoom previously. This article demonstrated really smart information architecture, rather than just another trick.

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  2. It’s rare to find a genuinely insightful article amongst the general hubbub of the web these days, this was yet another humbling article from ALA. I’d like to see more articles like these.

    I have just one thing to add. To take the metaphor in a different direction, I’d liken the cartographer to a set designer. A well-designed set may be necessary to make the play happen, but in the end of the night it’s the story that you tell that people will take away.

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  3. We’re playing it fast and loose with the metaphors here.

    Doesn’t this article propose that a web designer is a *rhetorician*, not a *cartographer*? It likens a website to Quintilian’s collective memory map - an imaginary construct with no physical form - not to a tangible, designed map. That tells me we’re making imaginary houses, not representations of those houses.

    So what happened to cartography, which I understand to be the science and craft of making maps? Maps aren’t imaginary places, they’re representations of places, imaginary or otherwise. They invariably take some kind of fixed form.

    And are we mapping memory or shaping social interaction? Because the idea of enabling social interaction inside a memory map strikes me as a terribly muddled metaphor.

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  4. I posted on Zeldman.com about this earlier - so I’ll paraphrase ..

    What a great unique and refreshing article on web design! We often think we’re doing things and building logical structures in an unprecendented fashion - we are pioneers and are paving the way, etc, etc “¦ yet that article proves quite the opposite is the case.

    I think a failure to see that there are greater forces at work than just the designer and client is what seems to lead to brand new sites being obsolete out of the box “¦ I work as a consulting SEO mostly - and find my role changing more to one of evanglising the semantic web than ever before. Not a role I mind at all - just not something I saw coming 2 years ago.

    Thanks for a insightful article!

    Regards, Lee

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  5. It’s rare to find a genuinely insightful article amongst the general hubbub of the web these days, this was yet another humbling article from ALA. I’d like to see more articles like these.

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  6. Very inspiring :) How do you foresee putting it into practice?

    Sounds like you’re advocating a user-defined architecture (sorry!) that evolves over time, otherwise the map you create for the current user interactions may soon become out-dated what with all the tectonic activity on the web these days!

    Do you envisage sites as evolving within a type of tag cloud while providing fixed points of anchorage, for example, in your case a particular year or department?

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  7. As a geographer and webdesigner, I could not have explained this side of my work much better. A website is ontologically a map (even if it is hard to explain or understand). Thanks.

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  8. I really appreciate this article. I love reading something lovely that makes me think.

    What I’d really love to see, actually, is an expanded version of this paper that take s the issue deeper: what are the implications of changing the metaphor by which we define ourselves? How does this change in our approach change not only what we create, but the relationships that stem from its making? What do we stand to gain by this shift in vision? And, most importantly, how will this shift in vision change our understanding and perhaps practice of digital information sharing?

    So, in your copious spare time ;) I’d love to see an expanded article. I could have kept reading this paper for several pages more. This was right up my alley; I loved it.

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  9. Websites are also the emergent property of the activity that can be mapped.  If you consider a publishing system like a blog, or youtube, then the physical (sic) website emerges over time as a by-product of its users activity. 

    Users come and go, publishing and commenting, etc.  This leaves behind html pages, words, content.  The website is ‘actually’ (and solely) made up of these artifacts and it’s their nature and texture that shapes future activity, which leaves more artifacts and so on. 

    In some cases it may be fruitful to consider mapping the activity your artifacts facilitate.  However, to scale, you must consider the artifacts left by the activity facilitated by the artifacts left by… ad infinitum.

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  10. Nice article I must say. Its not very often that someone discusses website architecture from a cartography point of view.
    This article prompted me to run a check through my own website and trust me I felt as I was on a treasure hunt something. Did manage to correct some inconsistencies but the journey was way better.

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  11. Excellent article.

    The mention of Lefebvre reminded me of the work of Guy Debord and the SI, esp. the idea of psychogeography. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Psychogeography) Specifically, I was thinking of what they referred to as the process of dérive which is defined as:

    “In a dérive one or more persons during a certain period drop their usual motives for movement and action, their relations, their work and leisure activities, and let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there”

    Users do this all the time unconsciously when they browse through sites.  Certainly, the architecture of the site is guiding them, but at the same time, users make their own paths through sites, esp. when exploring. Through the use of log analysis, information archtects can follow the flows of traffic from page to page within a site which parallels relatively closely the idea of following the psychological flow through a space.

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  12. Fascinating article, but what is the on-the-ground use for this comparision to Cartography? Would love to hear those thoughts.

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  13. As I have some background in cartography I started to compare cartography and web design.

    There is a process that is conducted when creating a map content. It is called “cartographic generalization”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Generalization

    This process is divided into 4 basic levels:
    * Selection (Reduction): you select which objects will be shown on a map
    * Simplification: you simplify shapes to increase visibility
    * Combination: you comine some elements where their existence is mor important then their position
    * Moving: you move elements apart so they don’t overlap

    We can clearly find a lot of similarities in this older craft. I guess I was never thinking ot of the box and realized there are infact quite a lot similar principles in web design and cartography

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  14. Interesting article and I agree with Pete N. vision. As info architects or geographers (or both), I think we can give new inputs to users, not only to map their way to use, read and surf websites. Isn’t this the sense of mapping…mapping the present to suggest (or experiment) the next step?

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  15. Hi Aaron,

    Yeah, it might be a book ;) But more information and analysis, even thought and discussion, on topics that we haven’t already covered to death is almost always a good thing! We’re still an emerging field, and I think philosophical forays like these are important. I don’t worry too much about the practical purposes—lay the groundwork first, and the application will follow, I’m sure of that. I get the feeling you might have more to say on the topic, and my point is, I’d love to hear more

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  16. What a useful perspective, utilizing concepts of philosophers that couldn’t have intended their theories to be applied in this sense. But what a logical and reasonable extension it is!

    This makes me wonder what Paul Virilio would think, when he discusses his ‘dromoscopy’ in which geography is destroyed at the point information can travel without any seeming spatial/time relation. Clearly, the web space has a geography of its own, in its file structure and further in its aesthetics that enable the user to achieve the goal provided by the function the designer enables and creates. This type of cartography is possible only through the collaboration of users and the conscience integration on the designers part.

    Thank you for your coherent explanation and fresh perspective!

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  17. # [Cicero] _Ad Herennium_. Trans. H. Caplan. Loeb Classical Library, 1954, (esp. p. 205 on).
    # Frances Yates. _The Art of Memory_. Univ. of Chicago Press, 1966.
    # George Johnson. _In the Palaces of Memory: How We Build the Worlds Inside Our Heads_, NY: Knopf, 1991.
    # Paolo Rossi. _Logic and the Art of Memory: The Quest for a Universal Language_. Trans. Stephen Clucas. Univ. of Chicago Press, 2000.
    # Jonathan D. Spence. _The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci_. Penguin, 1984.

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  18. Brilliant article! As an urban designer by trade and occasional web developer by hobby i often find myself using the city as a metaphor for web layout rather than just cartography. And I’ve written elsewhere about urban design and architecture becoming more and more like information architecture (google “q-dar quameleon” or “quantumcity press”)... and the link between memory and urban space, with the requisite nod to Lefevre. so thanks again for a wonderful and unexpected insight here at ALA, it proves yet again that our current worldview is coalescing more and more across disciplines.

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  19. If I’m interpreting things correctly, the paradigm shift we’re talking about here is asking: “How do users want to interact with my site” instead of “How do I think my site should be structured.”  It reminds me of something Liz Danzico mentioned in her presentation at AEA SF last week. She talked about “residue lines” (you know, like paths beaten into the grass where people actually walk) as paths of things people want, but which the architects didn’t provide. It comes down to watching and listening to users closely, and then adapting to what you find.

    In practical terms, we can go a long way by doing user-testing early and often. Perhaps it means creating a quick and dirty HTML or other “prototype”:http://www.alistapart.com/articles/paperprototyping/ that you can get into users’ hands while you’re still in the early stages of design. Perhaps there is user-testing built into multiple stages of the process. Or it could mean more initial research on the sites your target users actually go to, and how they use them. It may just mean putting yourself in your users’ shoes a little better, and figuring out where they expect to find things, and how they expect to get around.

    I hope my view of this article hasn’t been too narrow, since a lot of these ideas aren’t necessarily new. I loved the article, and I’ll hope to see more discussion on its practical application here.

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  20. The right article just in time to push me in the right line of thinking about a problem I have been mentally chewing on for some time (nothing to do with websites as a matter of fact ;-) )

    I am not a cartographer, but have been working with (visualisation of) geographical and geospatial information. Why the metaphor of the cartogrpaher is so relevant IMHO is that you can represent the exact same data in different ways: as a very detailed exact mapping of the real situation or a very abstract schematic network representation. Which representation is relevant to a user is depended on the context in which a user needs the information! You just serve them the right memory map.

    I think the web is slowly moving into a direction of being able to pick the representation of the same data that best fits the use at the moment you access the information (let the user pull up one of his stored memory maps). The role of the webdesigner is to be able to indentify the different uses and come up with different presentations that fit the intended use, instead of the one-design-fits-all approach we see on the majority of sites (even on the supposed web 2.0 sites).

    How to get there is probably a way of experimenting and having people around like the author of this article.

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  21. This reminds me of how sidewalks are often built on college campuses:

    First, a set of sidewalks are built based on what the architects feel will be good and logical paths between buildings.

    Later it becomes apparent, as tracks are worn through the grass, that students have other ideas about which paths are good and logical. They can’t be stopped, and the dirt paths are unattractive, so the dirt paths are soon paved over.

    As destinations rise and fall in prominence, new dirt paths appear, and the process starts again.

    Here’s where the web should have an advantage: the campus is stuck with all their old sidewalks as the green spaces become crisscrosses of concrete, but the web is agile enough to respond and update unused pathways.

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  22. Insightful, but I think now that you’ve enticed us with an interesting metaphor and a great classical reference you should spend more time on concrete things we can take away from this theory. What does it suggest about how we should approach structure? Can you use it to point out common flaws in design? I hope you develope the concept more.

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  23. Wow, this was really nice article to read. I’m in very similar situation to author: I’ve been hired to redesign the website of our Uniiversity of Applied Sciences. That job is about done now, but my greatest challenge is yet to be achieved. Next in line is our intranet, which needs heck lot of redesigning. Your article was very inspiring, so thank you for that!

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  24. Love these metaphors of mapping and safari.  When you have 6,000 pages of information I think that definitely qualifies as an adventure.

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  25. Interesting. It certainly gives a different perspective from the traditional architect metaphor.

    Whether it applies quite so well to a simple, static brochure site as it does to a 6000 page community site is debatable, but certainly worth considering nonetheless.

    I think the lesson in either case is to pay more attention to the end-user and be less precious about our own grand ideas.

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  26. To augment “Daniel Potter above”:http://www.alistapart.com/comments/mappingmemory?page=2#20 I’d point to:

    1. “The Timeless Way of Building”:http://www.amazon.com/Timeless-Way-Building-Christopher-Alexander/dp/0195024028 by Christopher Alexander
    2. “At Home in the Universe”:http://www.amazon.com/At-Home-Universe-Self-Organization-Complexity/dp/0195111303/ref=pd_bbs_sr_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1220360674&sr=1-1 by Stuart Kaufmann

    A short conceptual masterclass that can’t but teach you how to create living websites!

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  27. Digg.com is the obvious practical implementation of this effect. Actually, what’s the work of a cartographer here if the paths are laid out automatically by the users?

    On the statistics site, we would need more than the page-by-page overviews and show actual flow (animations even, realtime even).

    If we are able to provide an infrastructure that changes itself over time based on user interaction then we’re done. Maybe we’ll really be making maps of what’s there. Oh no of course, not, it will change too fast…

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  28. It’s funny you say we should add Cartography as a metaphor. I thought it already was a part of information architecture? I started my professional career working on signage and wayfinding and the first thing you figure out is a a sign is more useful if it is part of a system, a hierarchy or some kind of informational architecture (not to mention actually pinning sign locales on a real map). It was from sign system planning that Web design seemed both similar and natural. This work continued to UI/UX design and I still “map” out a site or application first. In fact, I find these hybrid tree diagrams + wireframes to be the most useful way for everyone to discuss an application or Web site; designers, developers, marketers and executives can see the lay of the land at glance and see where patterns and problems occur.

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  29. On the statistics site, we would need more than the page-by-page overviews and show actual flow (animations even, realtime even).

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  30. The comments on ‘residue lines’ was very insightful.  I think one practical thing to take away from this article and the discussion is that designing your site to be easily adaptable to be important.  You really never know how a website will work until you actually put it out in the market.  From a business perspective being able to respond quickly to market reaction is what separates winners from losers.

    From a technical point I think tags and a content weighting system could be practical ways to achieve some of the ideas discussed in the article.

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  31. That was unclear to me. My father’s an engineer and my mother is an artist, so maybe it’s my somewhat equally-brained legacy that makes it hard for me to understand why we want to make this such an arcane process.

    “Don’t Make Me Think” needs a sequel called “But Stop Trying to Think For Me.”

    The worst mistake you can make in my opinion is to try to guess ahead of your users. We adapt rapidly to systems. When systems attempt to adapt to us, I feel like we’re missing the point.

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  32. The idea of forgetting about the architect sounds great, hell, forget the builder too; we are here to find reality anyway right?  The only problem is that Lefebvre’s idea didn’t turn Descartes on his head; he (like all post-moderns) built on the foundation he was given.  That’s because you don’t have to be as smart a Descartes to understand that you can’t have anything “between”? until you have “discrete things”? (ideally, at least two).  The “relationships”? are between the objects described by Descartes.

    It sounds to me, Aaron, that you did have a fun time exploring someone else’s architecture and I encourage you to not shy away from the task of building now that it is your turn.  I ask you to at least accept your own agency and influence in the world and especially on the site you create.  You see, there is no history “per se”?, there is only what we remember and someone has to choose what that, is so go ahead and make something beautiful.  The cartographer, like the architect, chooses what is important, decides what to map, what is of value.  If you think a cartographer’s job is to present everything, show all experience without evaluation then you would have a life size road map that is as useful as just walking down the street to see where it goes.  Quintitian understood this, that is why he meticulously designed his eternal space, he is not exactly the poster of your idea.

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  33. Fascinating post.  I’m still trying to wrap my head around the idea of web design as cartography ... this will give me something to mull over today.

    Thanks!

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  34. Sorry, commenting is closed on this article.