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social software: representing relationships, part 3

[See parts one and two]

Anne linked to my first entry on representing relationships and Alex (sorry, no link) posted a comment there that centered around the following point:

it's interesting that dimensions are here thought of in terms of as static. That the space of visual representation is either 2d/3d. I was under the impression that interactive real-estate is multi-dimensional. I suppose if the design of such renderings is informed by scientific or mathematical diagrams then you are bound - to some degree - to the constraints of such formulations.
I started to reply in a comment there and I just kept typing and typing, so I came to the conclusion it'd be better to post it here...

I noted in my post that relationship patterns are actually n-dimensional, that is, I agree with Alex's comment in that sense. My reasons for looking at 2D/3D formulations are, however, less abstract than Alex implies. Plus, I'll go a bit further (since I don't think that Alex was suggesting that we should all suddenly move to n-dimensional maps) in analyzing why there is a tendency to go after linear, planar (and eventually, at most, volumetric) representations for data.

The 2D/3D representation "lock-in" that we see in UIs today actually has a solid basis in reality. Beyond the physiological limitations that our neural structure and binocular vision create, the laws of physics (as we understand them today :)) dictate that we'll never go beyond 3D visualization. Additionally our current technology dictates that it's impractical to design everything around a 3D display. (Sorry if this seems a bit too obvious, I just want to clarify in which context I'm looking at things).

From that follows that, if we represent n-dimensional data structures, we'll have to create projections. Projections are easy stuff, mathematically speaking (i.e., they involve fairly simple vector math). Visualizing them is not too difficult either. For example, consider hypercubes, which are one of the easiest cases because they're fully symmetrical graphs. For example this is what projections of hypercubes of dimensions n > 3 into 2D look like [source]:


A 2D projection of a, say, 12D space might be pretty to look at, but I think most users would avoid that kind of complexity and its consequent cognitive overload.

My point (I do have a point apparently) is that if we agree that we are bound by 2D (eventually 3D) displays, and that n-dimensional projections onto 2D/3D spaces are confusing to navigate for the majority of users, then we should try to use, as much as possible, actual 2D or 3D representations, simply because they are in their "native" form and can be properly optimized for easy, useful tasks that users might have to perform. The data is "transparent"; there are no abstractions to understand to make use of it (which would be necessary for higher-order spaces).

Additionally, those diagrams (while plausible UIs) are in my view more useful as tools for visualizing what is important about the data we're trying to represent (and allow to be manipulated/analyzed). And while they might be "overused" in the research sense, they haven't been used in actual software products that much. Part of the reason is that they feel "alien" as a way of manipulating data. Products like The Brain have been around for a long time, and yet they haven't taken over the world. Clearly, it's not something that can be simply assigned to, say, a failure of marketing or whatever. People like linearity, they are more comfortable with it, and in a pure design sense the less data there is to deal with the more users can focus on their work instead of focusing on how to navigate around the damn thing. All the major interfaces today are linear: the most complicated data structure people usually deal with (in filesystems, email programs, etc) are linearized hierarchies where they can deal with one linear subspace at a time (the current folder). Yes, there are historical reasons for this, but I also think that there's a strong component of user preference in it.

So, if we could pull off a switch from linear to 2D interfaces, even if they are a bit ancient as far as research is concerned, it would be a good step forward, always with the goal of providing the most accurate representation of the complexity we know it's there within the constraints we've got. After all, this is about making it easy for the majority of users, not people that will read something like this and not run away from the room in a panic. :)

Posted by diego on February 5 2004 at 2:14 PM

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