Mapping Memory: Web Designer as Information Cartographer

by Aaron Rester

38 Reader Comments

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  1. 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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  2. 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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  3. 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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  4. 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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  5. 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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  6. 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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  7. 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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  8. 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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  9. Thanks again to all of you for taking the time to read and comment on this admittedly very abstract article. Mulling over your comments during the past week, I’ve had a chance to think a bit more about the practical implications of adding a new metaphor to describe what it is that we do when we make websites.

    The most basic practical implications of this article, I think, have nothing to do with its content and everything to do with stirring up the kind of conversation we’re seeing here. The occasional questioning of a discipline’s foundational assumptions is necessary for that discipline to grow—from conversation and argument grow new ideas that can push the discipline in new directions. Frankly, I rather wish more folks who commented here disagreed with me.  For the sake of the profession, anyway. :-)

    In any case, looking back at the article again, I think the practical core of the article is a call for user-centric design. This is certainly not a novel idea, but there can never be enough reminders that we should be building websites for our users, and not for ourselves or our clients.

    More specifically, it is a challenge to change the process by which we as web designers determine a site’s structure. I love the idea (raised by a number of commenters) of building a website like paths on a college campus, allowing users to create the map, charting the natural flows of information the way one would chart foot traffic through the quad. At first glance, this ideas sounds a bit absurd when applied to an informational website—how, and why, would you build a site with no structure at all and then expect people to be able to find anything? I think some sort of underlying structure would be nescessary—after all, on the campuses in question, classroom buildings, dorms, and other landmarks are presumably built with some sort of relationship already implied.

    The folksonomy approach suggested by some commenters addresses the aim to allow users to determine structure, but I’ll confess that I don’t think I’ve yet seen a truly successful folksonomy-based site (if you know of one, please set me straight). Unfortunately, folksonomies get very unwieldy very quickly (I’m imagining billowing thunderclouds of tags), which can impede their usefulness. So I wonder: are there ways other than tag clouds to implement a folksonomy system? I suppose sites like Digg.com might be considered a folksonomy of sorts, in which users’ voting up or down of content partially determines that content’s relationship to the content around it. Conceivably a system like that might not only help determine which content users found most useful, but also enable them to have a say on how content should fit together on the site.

    I guess I’ve started wandering into slightly more theoretical territory once again, but I remain very curious as to what the readers of ALA see as the practical import of all of this theoretical talk, if any, and I throw the question out to you: how might seeing yourself as a cartographer as well as an architect change the way you work?

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  10. 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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  11. 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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  12. 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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  13. 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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  14. 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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  15. 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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  16. 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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  17. 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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  18. @Harland: I think you’re reading a little more radicalism into my post than is really there—I’m not calling for forgetting the role of architect, but rather for enriching our understanding of the role of the designer by adding to it the metaphor of cartographer. It’s not a choice of one or the other. Web designers are BOTH architect AND cartographer, because websites are both map and territory (Korzybski never saw a website).

    Nor am I advocating the abdication of the designer’s responsibilities in favor of a purely user-created topography—if we take the example of the paths on a college campus, for example, the users/walkers are only allowed to choose the paths between the buildings, not the placement or purpose of the buildings themselves.

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