Last week was Adaptive Path's blowout annual event, UX Week. I was tremendously excited about it, and it did not disappoint. My one previous experience at this conference was in 2006, Washington DC when I gave my first talk longer than 20 minutes, Data Visualization: Why Now? That one netted us my co-presenter this year, Tom Carden, whose work on OpenStreetMap I name-checked during my hour-long survey of new data visualization work.
This time, we did two sessions. Tom and I did a really really full three hour workshop extravaganza adapted from his amazing solo show at E-Tech this year. This was awesome. I talked for 90 minutes, had great audience participation, and walked away charged and energized ... I would love to do this one again, the scale and format (small room, 30-ish people?) was perfect and the attendees asked tough, perceptive, illuminating questions that absolutely made the whole thing sing.
On Friday, I also took the main stage to deliver a bit of a departure from our usual talk topics. Generally, we talk about what we do and how we do it. This time, we put some order to a whole bag of ideas about illusion, sleight of hand, surfacing and technique that I had initially been working out for Interesting2008. I wasn't able to get to London, so I did the talk in town. This one was a sharp contrast. The material was something new and experimental for me, and the klieg light ballroom format makes for a strange speaker / audience relationship. Still, I felt like I had crossed some form of boundary and I'm anxious to polish the topic for another go.
The talk was called Greebles, Nurnies, Tiles, and Flair, and these are my slides and notes.
"Greebling" is a special effects term that makes sense if you've seen Star Wars ... all those little nubs on the Imperial Star Destroyer and other ships make it look big, and real. They're there to hide the fact that it's plywood and plaster, to help you believe that it's a mile long.
Tiles are a technique you'll be familiar with from Google Maps. The infinite, continuous road maps and satellite imagery are available over a regular broadband connection because Google serves them to you as small square images...
...that get stitched together into a seamless field by your web browser.
Sleight of hand.
Tiled image maps are a stand-in for a larger strategy for dealing with continuity. How do you use a clipped, staccato medium like the internet and the digital computer to simulate infinity?
The world of computer gaming has been dealing with these questions for some time. There's an excellent article by Scott Bilas from Gas-Powered Games called The Continuous World of Dungeon Siege. In it, he describes the technical challenges of presenting a seamless world.
It's similar in concept to the tiles slippy maps you can see in your browser: divide the world into discrete chunks, connect them to one another, and figure out how to stream everything into the play environment from outside the player's field of vision, so they are never presented with a loading screen.
There is no global coordinate system, all is relative.
This is becoming a core expectation of modern games, walk around World Of Warcraft or Grand Theft Auto for a few minutes to see.
Online mapping is a version of this in miniature. Our code library Modest Maps was developed to generalize the pattern. We started using it with geographical maps...
...but have started to apply the technique to non-geographic mappings: floorplans, ...
... and artworks, to name two.
All the Maps mashups out in the world are like portals into the Continuous World Of Google Maps - each one a square window onto the same world.
It's like looking at a blue whale through a letterbox. Nature's Timo Hannay meant this as a criticism, but Stamen's Tom Carden thinks this is awesome.
What if you could see that, as you search for driving directions from San Bruno to Marin, that someone else is simultaneously crossing your path from Oakland to SF's Sunset district?
I talk about Google because it's familiar, but there are a lot of other distributed services starting to act like this. Continuous World Of Flickr, Continuous World Of Twitter are giant services but everyone sees a very small piece at a time.
Sleight of hand again:
The magic wand is there to make the hidden coin look less conspicuous.
Greebles are the parts that "look cool, but don't actually do anything" (C3PO). There's an entire discipline here composed of special effects artists and asset designers working to hide the plywood spaceships and simple game world polygons beneath an encrusted surface texture.
Textured surface gets you several things.
One is that it's proof of reality. Check out this map of Moscow (Kosmoninki), with all the individual buildings marked and numbered. It makes the map look more like the territory.
Google Maps for Tokyo have logos for all convenience stores baked right into the imagery. I thought this was an experiment in advertising until I went there, and learned that conbini are one of the prime wayfinding mechanisms people use to figure out where they're going. The street numbering system is entirely different, so navigation takes place by landmark rather than coordinate.
With Cabspotting, we made an early decision to ditch the base map and show just the trails of each taxi. This bought us a lot of wiggle room, since the GPS trails don't match up to the roads very well and would have looked terrible. It also bought us the appearance of truth. If you can see the rush of cabs in SOMA after last call, or the dense cluster around the dispatch yard, or the thick line along Geary out to the Sunset, you believe that the data is true.
These kinds of surface signals are encountered everywhere. NASCAR without sponsor logos looks barren, everyone knows that advertising is the lifeblood of the sport, and the logos on cars and driving suits reminds you that these guys are legitimate, that someone cares about them enough to pay to be seen with them, says Adobe's Michael Gough.
AdBlock for browsers has been succeeded by ArtBlock.
Surface details like this are a kind of social signal that the textured surface is real and cared-for, that it can be grasped and held on to.
Compare and contrast the visual appearance of OpenStreetMap two years vs. now: it's more credible and therefore more useful, because it's beautiful.
Sleight of hand again:
I have been talking about surfaces and misdirection.
Social sites are taken seriously when they have crowds of users, loads of data, and all the scaling problems that accompany success. "Scaling is always a catch up game, but it's the best game there is" says Flickr's Kellan Elliot McCrae.
Big data, crowds of users, sheets of information poking up through the surface.
Credibility comes from looking busy, and being continuous: having something on page two, page three, etc. You will inevitably be asked to work on "social features" - most of the labor is getting people to give a damn, and getting the details right on the unbroken layer under everything else.
Approach this by starting underneath the surface.