Paul Rissen is a Product Manager currently at Springer Nature and formerly at the BBC. He specializes in product management, information architecture, user experience, content/domain modelling and structured data for future-friendly digital products. He also enjoys teaching, writing, speaking and sharing knowledge.
IA Summit 2015 Main Conference Talk
Topic(s): content modeling, information architecture, internet of things, and storytelling
The Web isn’t just a delivery platform—it’s a medium for creative expression— and it’s time we, as IAs, became artists as well as user experience advocates.
Starting from the humble art of content modelling and URL design, this talk weaves the work of Scott McCloud, Tom Armitage, James Bridle and Alan Moore into a heady cocktail that shows why designing Webs is truly a creative practice.
We’ll also explore how work at the BBC into Web-native storytelling, when combined with the Internet of Things can lead us down an intriguing path where Sir Tim Berners-Lee becomes a latter-day alchemist.
Paul Rissen: Thank you very much. As of about 1:00 PM here, the BBC has produced about 2,636,214 program pages on its website. That is a page for every single episode, series, brand of, I’m going to say, everything the BBC’s ever done. It probably isn’t the entire archive, but it’s slowly getting there. If you go to bbb.co.uk/programs, you can watch that counter steadily go up, up, and up. This is /programs.
It is one page for every single episode, series, all that thing. Which means you can find all the episodes of “Dr. Who” from the latest Christmas special all the way back to the beginning in 1963. It gives you all the production metadata, when it was broadcast, what channel it was broadcast on, how long, the genre, the cast and crew, and where you might be able to see it next if it gets repeated, where you can buy it on DVD, that thing. It’s a great example of the values of the semantic Web and linked data. One URL per thing, say, for a concept, not necessarily just page focused.
But, today, I’d like to argue that recreating traditional text on little information architectures on the Web, as a platform, isn’t enough. I’d like us to start using the Web as a medium for creative expression and here’s how. I’m going to talk to you about designing webs. What do I mean by designing webs?
A single episode of a TV show is only the beginning. Once you start watching or listening to a program, you don’t actually care about the broadcast information anymore. If you don’t care which channel it’s own, what time of day, you’re there. You’re in the moment. You’re watching the drama. What you care about, what you’re going to talk about with your friends afterwards is something different. It’s the characters. It’s the plot events. It’s the things that happened, how you felt.
Being a “Doctor Who” fan since about 1991, I put two and two together and started mapping out the content model of some episodes of “Doctor Who.” At the top, we have an unbroken line of all the episodes ever. Then I mapped out, “Well, this is a particular series.” Then I take a particular episode, Steven Moffat’s “Blink” and I break that down into, “Here are the main events in the plot.” Then, below that, I’ve got the characters and how they come in and out of the action.
This particular example was interesting because the main character, the Doctor, you’ll see in the blue dots appears at the beginning, somewhere a bit in the middle, and then right at the end. The production reason for this is they like to give the main actor a break during the filming of the series. But in terms of the plot, it’s a completely different way of experiencing it.
I started to wonder what could you do with this information. You could trace the movement of the characters in and out of the action or you could start playing around with time, which is rather relevant for a time-travel show. This episode in particular is seen through the eyes of Sally Sparrow, played by Carey Mulligan, who’ll never appear in Dr. Who again, now that she’s a famous Hollywood actress.
The last thing that happens to her is she meets the doctor. The first thing that happens to the doctor, in terms of this story, is he meets her. So it’s the same event seen from completely different viewpoints. You don’t have to be a show about time-travel to mess around with time. There’s different ways, when you’re telling a story, that events can occur.
If you think about a typical episode of Colombo, events occur in chronological order. You have the two characters, one of them hates the other one, so you get the motive first. Then you see the murderer getting together his plan. Then you see the murder. Then Colombo comes on the scene and has to spend about half an hour, which I don’t like Colombo because he spends so long for him to try and catch up with it.
Eventually, the accusation happens and right at the end, there’s the arrest. This is what the Russian narratologist, Vladimir Propp, called ‘fabula,’ so the raw material of the story, the chronological order of the fictional world. In contrast, the British very homespun TV series, Mid-Summer Murders, takes the in-narrative order. This isn’t the chronological orders that happen in the story world.
This is an edited way of telling the story. In this case, the murder happens first. Then you see the investigation, the accusation and then you seen the means and the motive revealed in flashback, the arrest. This is what Propp calls the ‘syuzhet,’ I think that’s how it’s pronounced, the way in which the story is organized.
You already have two levels. You have the story world. Then you have the story telling. Then you also have the knowledge that the audience has. We have this linear way of experiencing stories, the story telling, but what I’d like to argue is the story world beneath that is something different. It’s not necessarily linear. Stories, even linear narratives, quickly become not just straight lines but webs, webs of information.
Unsurprisingly, it turns out we’re not the first to discover this, not by a long shot. This is Aristotle. We basically wrote the book on drama, particularly tragedies, but it’s a book which has pretty much informed all of our approaches to drama and narrative since then.
Aristotle says, “Plot is a web of events that make each other likely or necessary.” Much of reading a work of fiction is working out that web to try and figure out what the future implications might be of something that you’ve seen or trying to work out why something has happened based on what you’ve already seen. From the beginnings of narrative, we’ve always acknowledged that stories are webs.
Indeed, the former head of BBC Drama, John York, says that, “Storytelling is the dramatization of the process of knowledge assimilization. Consciously or unconsciously,” he says, “all drama is an argument with reality in which a conclusion is drawn and reality tames. We’re all detectives seeking our case to be closed.” Which, for me, makes me think that storytelling and script writing, in a way, is information architecture in its purest form.
Now, side note, when the Internet and the Web first appeared, it was all about branching narratives and the promise of hypertext. “Choose your own adventure,” that thing. Indeed, every time I talked to some people about narrative and web, the subject of branching narrative comes up, how that doesn’t work, how we moved on from there, how you’re trying to ruin the role of the author, and that thing.
The hyperlink is a curious thing. It’s the point and it’s not the point. I’m not asking people to force themselves into writing branching narratives. The combinatorial explosion of doing so makes it very, very tricky to come up with a satisfying and coherent story. Instead, I’ll make a bold claim. Every creative work, every narrative we’ve told ourselves, is actually a Web. We’ve become used to the idea of it being purely linear because we’ve confused the experience of storytelling with the content itself.
Just because the process of telling, or consuming, a story is linear doesn’t mean that the narrative world below is linear and fixed. It’s a Web. It’s always been a Web. By concentrating on just creating linear or even branching user journeys in our experiences and hierarchical site maps, we’re falling into the trap of recreating the linear experience online rather than recreating the world online in its natural form, a web of information.
As I said at the beginning, we bandy around this term “storytelling” all the time without really thinking what it means. Let’s look at a couple of examples from the BBC of how we’ve been exploring this. This is the Mythology Engine, which myself and some colleagues in R&D put together in 2010. It allows you to navigate the archives, selected stories from the archive of “Doctor Who.” We also did it for a long running TV soap, “EastEnders,” not by broadcast information, which is what their [indecipherable 08:47] programs platform does, but by the plot itself.
You can see here we’ve got the plot events much like I had on that original diagram. You can click on any of them. You can see which characters are involved, what they did in there. You’ll notice there’s a character index at the bottom of good and bad characters. I didn’t really want that, but the visual designer insisted they had to be good and bad labels. It doesn’t really work most narratives.
Let’s go into an event. This is the event where Sarah Jane Smith, a long time companion of the Fourth Doctor, Tom Baker, meets up with Davros, the evil creator of the Daleks for the first time since an infamous episode in the 1970s. What we can do is have a link on the page, which will take you straight into the archive, straight to that relevant plot event. Let’s click on that. We go back to here.
Notice here that you can watch the clip, but it’s actually two clips thrown together because, in the original broadcast, this is a cliffhanger. This is two episodes, but we don’t care about the broadcast information here. We’re interested in the story world. There is one event, which happens to have two pieces of media together.
In this clip, the Doctor is having to tell Davros all of the previous times that the Daleks have been defeated. Again, we can have a link right back to 1963 and one of the first stories with the Daleks. We can also refer you back to the future into the modern day episodes. The crucial thing with both Mythology engine and the [indecipherable 10:21] programs platform is that it’s not actually about this interface. It’s not about this website. It’s about the web of information. Creating and structuring that information unlocks it from the silos of traditional media.
At the BBC Birmingham offices, we discovered an entire cabinet filled with index cards with acres of information about characters and events from the popular agricultural soap, “The Archers.” This is the world’s longest running radio soap opera. It’s been going for about 64 years. There have been over 17,600 episodes according to Wikipedia.
Looking at these, we have character biographies, when they were born, what their education is, and significant events in their fictional lives. We’re in the process of digitizing these cards now, with the hope that one day we can release it as an audience experience, and I would quite like it if we can release this as an open data set.
These cards reminded me of something else I’d seen, recently. At a country house in Caversham, near Reading, BBC Monitoring keeps an eye on the rest of the world’s media, and they keep an especially close eye on those in power.
This is an index card for Nelson Mandela, hand-typed, keeping a note of all the significant events in his life. Carefully typed, ongoing histories of significant people, and it’s exactly the same data structure as we have for fictional people, because news and drama, essentially, are the same thing.
These are dramatic tales we are telling trying to try and make sense of reality, events, people’s lives, the ways in which they’re interpreted and strung together into narratives that help us make sense of the world. This same approach then doesn’t just work for drama. It can work for documentaries. It can work for news. It can work for sports. They’re all narratives.
For instance, we’re starting to use it in preparation for the election in BBC News, by going back into the archives and creating timelines, narratives of previous elections. We can do it for a certain election, or we can trace a significant figure through history and see the pivotal moments that the BBC has covered, because we have such a vast archive.
It’s not just us at the BBC though. How many of you listen to “Serial,” the podcast? Quite a lot of you. The folks behind Vox, Vox.com, did as well. Here is a screenshot from one of their internal slap channels. Who is on again? Exactly, I’m starting to lose track of the characters, “We should make a character map, put it on the site.”
With the only the traditional, audio-based, linear narrative to grab hold of, even the team at Vox was starting to lose track of what was going on, so they built this. This takes the traditional audio narrative and tells you which characters are involved and what they’re doing. They’re doing it in other things.
Amazon, who’ve had their X-Ray feature in Kindle books for a while now, are starting to roll this out on their video platform.
I think we’re going to see this more and more as people need to grapple with increasingly complicated narratives, the narrative data about the narrative is going to be as important how we consume and navigate through that media.
This then is the truth revealed to us through the advents of the Web. We make sense of the world through narratives, and those narratives themselves are in and of themselves webs, which begs two questions from me. If we have Web design, and we as IAs are in charge of organizing that content, can IA be a creative discipline?
Don’t get me wrong. I strongly believe that functionality, simplicity, accessibility, achieving business goals are hugely important things, giving the user what they want, getting them to their intended content or transaction, as quickly, and as efficiently, as possible. Yet, that’s surely true of any business which takes UX seriously.
What I want to see is a way to use information architecture to be imaginative, to be silly, to be creative. I had a conversation with a former colleague, a while back, [indecipherable 14:53] , information architects aren’t creative. They don’t once seem to imagine the future. They’re too pragmatic and they’re obsessed with the details of what’s practically possible, or not possible, right now, as if IA and creativity were fundamentally incompatible.
Well, I would like to reject that. If we reject that, and we want to see how IA is a creative discipline, we need a medium. What is our medium?
Scott McCloud, who you may recognize from this very accurate photo, wrote “Understanding Comics,” which is the seminal book on why comics should be taken seriously as an art form. He says, “The creation of any work, in any medium, will always follow a certain path.”
He describes six steps, the idea and purpose, by which he means the conceptual content of the work, the form it will take, so in his example is a book, a chant, a song, a comic book. The idiom, that’s the school of art, the genre, that thing.
Then there’s the structure, what to leave in, what to leave out, and how to arrange and compose the work. There’s the craft, so the actual process of construction, problem solving, getting the job done. Finally, there’s the surface, so production values, finishing the immediate aesthetics that you see when you first open the book.
In the world of UX, we often talk a lot about the lack of latter lot of three, the structure, and the craft, and the surface. I would argue that it’s the first three that we need to investigate a whole lot more. At the moment, when you say website to someone, that means a certain thing. The thing we’ve grown up with in the last 20 years, a hierarchical site map, a desktop visual design, a compact desk form. Yet we know, instinctively, that this is changing, but as an industry and as a medium we are very much still in the early days.
We love to point out how things are changing. There’s more devices, more screen sizes, more inputs, and yet we don’t seem to take the time to investigate the fundamental properties of the medium that we call the Web. If we did, I suspect we’d rethink a lot of our approaches to our work and our practice, and we’d end up in a far more creative future.
This is a piece of work called “Spirits Melted into Air,” by the British technologist, Tom Armitage. He was commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company and a design studio called Caper, to explore how one might creatively visualize various Shakespearean soliloquies. Tom took video footage of the actors performing each soliloquy, tracked the path of their movement across the stage as they performed, and then printed out these paths both on paper and wood cuttings.
When describing an element of his working practice, Tom talks about the process of material exploration, a common technique for product designers and artists. He explains that, “Invention comes from design, and until the data hasn’t been exposed to designers in a way that they can explore it, manipulate it, and come to an understanding of what design is made possible by the data, there is essentially no product.”
He goes on, “To invent the products we need to design, and to design we need to explore the material. It’s as simple as that.” Too often, I’d argue, we get balance the wrong way around. We start by examining existing user behaviors, coming up with journeys that recreate and maybe slightly improve upon the old forms in a new medium, almost like skeuomorphism for UX as a whole. Then we take pixels and interactions as our sole material, and the data and information architecture only comes after the real creative work is done, and is just used to bring it to life.
But, as Tom explains, there is an equally if not more valid way of thinking about this. Forgive me for using the well-worn analogy of Lego bricks, but would you really only use them to create something from a pre-defined plan? No, the real pleasure of playing with Lego bricks is tipping the box of bricks out onto the floor and building whatever you’d like with them, unexpected, silly things with them.
This I feel is what we need to learn to do much, much more if we’re to treat IA as a creative medium, a creative discipline. The role of the architect isn’t just to guide and build something to a pre-defined plan. It’s to know and understand the warp and the weft of the materials to hand as well as the vision and to sculpt something incredible.
I’ve been talking about data a lot and, obviously, buzzword still in the industry, big data. I don’t really like big data. It scares me slightly. When you hear storytelling, big data together, it’s normally about taking a massive data and trying to weave a story from that, but stories are so much more than just the objects within them.
Indeed, data isn’t just quantitative. It’s not just numbers. It really, really pains me when people say, “Oh, you’re a data architect. You just do the stats and the numbers.” No, data can be ideas. It can be concepts, and, as we’ve seen, stories are webs.
This is James Bridle, another British technologist. You can see I’ve got a certain scene going on here. He’s written a lot about coming to terms with the nature of the networked world in which we live and how we’re struggling with that.
He coined the phrase “the new aesthetic” which of course has many facets, but one of the key ones is how, in his own words, “every web page, every essay, and every line of text written or quoted therein is a link to other words, thoughts, and ideas.” The hyperlink isn’t necessarily something new.
As Ted Losund said yesterday, The Talmud, one of the earliest books we have, essentially is Wikipedia before it was there. It’s revealing to us that even our most traditional forms of literature and art have always been hyperlinked. We just never had the medium to express this possibility.
In case I haven’t made myself clear, I believe, therefore, that data is the natural form for the medium we all work in and that when we’re considering a creative approach to information architecture, the screens, the journeys, the personas are not the point. Designing, sculpting the data into the right, useful, and-or delightful shapes, that is the key.
When we have to acknowledge the network, we should consider everything we create, every service, every product, every cultural artifact, to be a network in and of itself. Not only is it connected to others, but the work within itself is its own micro-network of ideas and concepts. Every creative work we design, we should think of as a web, and we should enable it to be experienced as one. I am a web designer. I design webs.
So, we have a medium, URIs, hyperlinks, and we have a form, the network, an actual web, not just the Web as a platform. But what should we do with this? How can we be creative? The Internet of things, physical objects that have connection to the network and therefore can use the capabilities of the network to augment their functionality. Arduinos and all that.
Probably not something where information architects and UX folk traditionally get involved. If we continue not to get involved in it, we’ll probably end up not with these certain toasters but these toasters, from “Red Dwarf,” the annoying talkie toaster.
My good friend Michael summed up this in a great way recently. He said, “Information architect for things without screens, that would be a good job,” which, to me, is a key message.
As the number of devices and inputs and possible ways of outputting information increase beyond frankly our ability to keep up with them, we have two choices, either pick a few of the varieties and just design for them, and have both a limited impact and a nagging sense of dissatisfaction, or concentrate first on designing the thing that won’t change regardless of all of the above, the raw information.
Then, even if you can choose a few devices or inputs, you have the freedom to easily change your mind and react to the future without having to completely start again. We talk a lot about a mobile first approach. I would like to see us take a no screen approach. See what happens then.
Russell Davis, a writer, describes the Internet of Things as, “The web of data wants to escape the screen. It wants to materialize in the real world. It wants to get physical, become objects,” which brings me to the writer and part-time practicing wizard, Alan Moore.
Alan Moore was once asked, “Where do you get your ideas from?” He didn’t know and this troubled him because, ultimately, it was the source of his income. If he couldn’t come up with new ideas, he wouldn’t be able to pay the mortgage.
What he came to realize, he did a lot of soul searching, is that the world we live in, despite all appearances, is not a physical one. To make sense of the physical space we find ourselves in, we create ideas and concepts in our minds, and that is how we mediate our lives. He called this conceptual world “Idea Space,” and the act of creating things that you’ve thought of and bringing them out of conceptual Idea Space and into the real world, well, that’s magic.
He says, “Magic is the process by which ideas leave Idea Space and manifest themselves in the physical world,” which seems quite similar to what I just talked about. The Internet of Things, the Web, the Web of Data, that’s Idea Space, and the Internet of things, that’s magical creation happening right there. So The Internet of Things isn’t about your Internet fridges. It is, by Alan Moore’s definition, literally magic.
This is why I believe we shouldn’t just limit ourselves to putting stuff on the web which is mundane and physical, though that’s not a bad thing in and of itself. So much of what we talk about when we create web things is just recreating things which are object-based already. Instead, we should be creating cultural, interesting data because if we have that stuff on the web, that opens up so many more creative possibilities for us.
If the sum of the ideas on the web are just these government data, scientific data, that’s all worthy and good, and we should have that. [sighs] It’s a bit boring. Only people who are really interested in the stuff are going to be able to do things with that.
We’re teaching our kids to code. I want to have Pokemon on there. I want to have Dr. Who. I want to have fun, cultural, interesting data so that people can play around and mess around with it.
By breathing life into these ideas, by putting them on the web, we open them up to the possibility of changing the world. So I don’t just want the Internet of Things, I want the Internet of Fictional Things. This is an attempt of mine to do that by creating RDF for an episode of “30 Rock.”
As the writer and technologist Leila Johnston says, “What would technology be if it didn’t feel it had to justify itself? What if we start making silly, playful networked things? Wouldn’t that be a way to learn about this medium? If we only use it for those serious things, then when we make mistakes, we’re going to run into big problems.”
I’ve always said at the BBC, “I’d like to do this story stuff with drama first even though eventually it can work for news because if I want to do it for news, I want to get it right. You’re messing with reality, you’ve people who are going to sure you if you get it wrong whereas drama, which I still feel is very important, if you get it wrong, it’s not the end of the world.”
There is massively important work to be done, but one way of coming to terms with that networked world, which James Bridle says we’re all struggling with, isn’t just to examine it seriously but to engage with it playfully.
But it’s not just magic. It’s something more powerful, so alchemy. Up until fairly recently, if somebody said alchemy to me, I would have thought of this from “Black Adder.” My understanding of alchemy was it was about turning base metal into gold or green as they have in here. But let’s take a look at the laws of alchemy which you may have noticed sprinkled throughout this talk.
Law number one, an alchemist must have a medium for any form of alchemy to succeed. Well, we have that. We have a medium. We have the medium of the web, URIs, hyperlinks, semantic web stuff. We talk a lot about semantic web and how difficult it is. The cat sat on the mat. If you can understand the cat sat on the mat, you can understand the semantic web. Noun, verb, noun, subject, predicate, object, URI, URI, URI.
Next law, “In order for true alchemy to operate, an alchemist must fully understand the structure of matter. He or she must possess the sight, the ability not to see an object as a whole but as a structure constructed of trillions upon trillions of atoms.” As I’ve said earlier, that’s true. What we do as information architects is understand structure beneath it and every story is a web.
Finally, these are the weeping angels who are an example of this final law of alchemy. Alchemy is a mode of human inquiry in which symbols and objects are treated interchangeably so that action on one affects the other. As they say in “Dr. Who,” the image of the angel is as effective as an angel itself.
There’s a lovely quote, very poetic, “What if our thoughts could think for themselves? What if our dreams no longer needed us? When these things occur and are held to be true, the time will be upon us, the time of angels. The angels arose because they were thought of. They stepped out of dreams and into the world. They are not science but magic through and through. They are symbols with power.”
The symbol of an object is equivalent to the object itself. The basic alchemic principle is that a physical object can be affected by the manipulation of a symbol of that object. That’s the Internet of Things. That’s we have URIs for. That’s what we have APIs for. You manipulate an API and, if it’s connected to the Internet of Things, you’re affecting a symbol and affecting the real world.
Designing webs. Overall, I’d like you to think not just about websites but think of everything you do as a web. What is the web underneath it? How can you create a web from it? Think of the World Wide Web not just as a platform for your existing creation but as a medium which is ideally suited to expressing creativity. Engage within that Web World. We can’t just leave this to fridges and some such. By creating culture, and I don’t just mean art galleries, I mean low culture, silly things. Get involved.
Personally, I believe that APIs and the Internet of Things show that magic and alchemy are possible.
These men weren’t just geniuses, Tim Berners-Lee and Ted Nelson. The Internet isn’t just a platform for existing media. It’s a medium, the Web, in and of itself, and we need to start creating creative works attuned to that medium. But not just that. These men are alchemists. The magic really is possible.
I’ll leave you with this from Scott McCloud. He says, “The mastery of one’s medium is the degree to which the artist’s ideas survive the journey,” Basically, he’s talking about all creative expression is about trying to transfer understanding from one mind to another to try and match, and explore everyone’s individual Idea Space. I believe that Idea Space is hyper linked, and the way we experience the world is too. The web is the nearest we can get to matching that Idea Space.
Every other significant medium that we’ve had, we have the ideas, and then we have to write it down in a linear format to experience it. The Web is different. The Web allows us to transfer our thoughts, and get it out there in almost the most natural form possible.
I believe, yes, IAs can be creative, and we should be using the web to do that. Thank you very much.
Paul: That’s me on Twitter. There’s an email address, if you’d like to chat more. I am around until Monday morning if you want to chat. My blog, website, all that kind of thing. If you’ve enjoyed this talk, please say nice things there. Thank you. I think we’ve got time for questions. I think I’ve underrun.
Audience Member: Paul, this is great. I’m so glad you mentioned URIs, and everything else geeky, and awesome. Now I really want to know what’s happened to those cards. You said the drama one’s are being digitized. What about other ones?
Paul: The Archers archive is being digitized. We have a prototype of that, that’s password protected, but if you’re really interested I can probably give you that. Maybe. Maybe. Don’t hold me to that. The BBC monitoring ones, I’m not really sure. Obviously, BBC monitoring is internal thing, and there’s probably some controversial old language used in there somewhere. I would like that stuff to be out there. I’ll have to investigate more.
Personally, I would like us to build a system, which can cope both with the fictional stuff, and the real world stuff because build one platform, use it for many things. Fingers crossed, we can do that. Thank you. Anything else?
Audience Member: That was fantastic. Thank you so much.
Paul: Thank you.
Audience Member: In looking at trying to understand the structure better, and implementing more of that creative process, what are some of the different ideas that you have for teams to implement that, and how do you overcome the abstraction of that for some?
Paul: One of the techniques that I’ve grown up with is domain modeling, or content modeling. That is all about almost forgetting that you’re doing a website in the first place, and just concentrating on the things that people are interested in, and how they’re related. I think that’s a really powerful tool for doing this.
If you’ve got a team, and they’re discussing a creative work, or subject area, almost throw the website part out of the window. Just get them to talk about what they’re making. What are the nouns? What are the verbs? The web, as I’ve said, will emerge organically from it.
Audience Member: I love those visualizations of the structure of the plot, of fiction, and the character arcs, and relationships, and that thing. Do you have any plans for being able to visualize those online in any way?
Paul: Yeah, I would like us to do that. We need to convince the BBC to do more of it. We’re getting good traction in news, drama. BBCs public funded, so it needs to be careful about how it spends its money in the moment it’s making the show, and then putting that online.
I think there are powerful ways we can do that. I would like it not to just be a static visualization, or a flash thing. I think it needs to be something that you can click on, that you can actually be part of the Web. One of the best visualizations that I’ve seen, unfortunately, no longer exists.
It was a thing that Channel Four did. It was called “Who Knows Who?” It was examining the networks of power, like in governments, and things like that. The crucial thing was it was a fairly standard network diagram of stuff, but you could click on the links, you could see how people were related, if they went to school together, that thing.
That is a key thing that, I think, a lot of these kinds of visualizations miss out on. You can see the nodes, but you can’t see what the links are. I would love to visualize, but I think the visualization can’t just live on its own. We have that Web of the medium. It should just be a representation of that.
Audience Member: Hey Paul. That was awesome. Good job. I was wondering if you had any advice for me. I teach at an art school, traditionally, or a design program within an art school. One of the things that I struggle with, in the creation of diagrams, like the ones you were showing, is students want for things to be right.
I was talking to someone about this earlier today, and they related it as it almost feels like we don’t realize that the diagrams we’re making are actually the process that we’re going through, and that they’re looking for the object of the diagram.
Do you have any advice on how to keep your business stakeholders, and maybe even your designers, out of the, excuse my phrasing, the fetishism of diagrams?
Paul: I think there’s possibly two aspects to it. There is this element to which, like you say, the diagram and deliverable isn’t really the point. The point is the conceptual information. I guess part of it is reiterating that, that the diagram is a tool for understanding, and for communicating.
With the domain modeling, domain modeling is based on the whole entity relationship diagramming, which you can take really, really hardcore into database design, and all that kind of things, but that’s appropriate for a certain type of audience.
It’s all about understanding the audience that you’re trying to communicate with, as to what level of detail that you go to. I think the other thing for me is that, like Cat was saying earlier, that there’s not necessarily a single truth. I really, really believe that.
I think one of the things I’d love to see us, in news for the BBC, is show all the different things that the different media outlets are saying, and we are the neutral, we’ll show you different ways. There’s this concept of self referential reality tunnels that Robert Anton Wilson, and Timothy Leary came up with.
Basically, every individual understands the world in their own way, and they reinforce their understanding in the way they experience it. I’m going to bring it back to Doctor Who again. If you try to take the whole fictional history of Doctor Who, and put it into one time line, it just wouldn’t work. It wouldn’t make sense.
I love that about the show. What the great things is, is that fans can take the bits and pieces, and tell their whole stories with it, see what makes sense to them. I would like to see, in answer to your question, empowering users to…We will create the toys you can play with. We will give you the characters, and the plot events.
You then have the power, you have the tools to create your own things with that. This isn’t about us imposing our understanding on you. We will give you the resources we need to educate, and give people the tools to enable them to say, “OK, well I see it this way, you see it that way. How can we combine our understanding, see where the differences are?”
Acknowledging different realities is always good. Thank you. That’s probably it then. Thank you very much.