Visualising collections

Posted on July 24, 2007


I’m a big fan of the diagram. Anyone who has worked with me knows I tend to put ideas down as organograms, mind-maps and other scribbles: I’m pretty bad at understanding concepts unless I can sketch them. Visual cues, linkages, the ability to promote ideas, connect them together – all of these seem incredibly valuable when thinking about relationships between concepts, objects, web pages.

Visualisation of the same way, I find the means by which we browse collections of stuff online is usually wholly unsatisfactory. As Seb Chan said in his talk at Museums on the Web UK, the way in which hierarchies or search results are displayed on the web is almost always terribly pedestrian, and has no real-world connection at all. His example of the supermarket shelf struck a chord: we browse by casting our eyes over the range of products available, use visual cues to pick out the ones we think are interesting and then hone in on those.

Usually people talk in terms of two modes of findability: search (enter terms into box, get results as list) and hierarchy (follow increasingly specific taxonomical tree to your destination). I think there’s another, usually missed, which has at the heart of it the sense of serendipity. This is what “browse” is, really, when you think about it. It’s the means by which you can cast your eye over a whole range of things you don’t know you’re interested in yet and then focus in on things that catch your eye. This is probably why many people find the apparent chaos of a museum store as interesting as a set of interpreted objects in a museum gallery. The lack of order, the sense of finding something, is itself an important part of the experience.

Online museum collections often work on the assumption that people know what they’re looking for. Sometimes they do, in which case search and hierarchy work fine – but if they don’t, and are just “browsing” in the true sense of the word, then the tools at our disposal are slightly more interesting. As a diagram addict these particular tools and methods always interest me.

Here’s a few:

History Wired which has been around a long time but I still like it: A Java app (boo) developed by Smart Money lets you zoom in to objects – the size of which is influenced by the “votes” that have been received for that object. The application can be licensed but last time I asked it was frighteningly expensive…

The fabulous Music Plasma – a lovely Flash based app for finding and browsing bands – *please* will someone do this for museum collections??

Search Crystalblogged about by Seb recently, a slightly ragged-looking but quite satisfying tool for displaying search results visually

If you think about the ways in which content is searched for and used in “web 2 ways” it is often about this serendipity; jumping across from topic to topic, from object to object, often with little sense of purpose but just a desire to be entertained. Sometimes you’re after specific things, but sometimes you just want to have a fun time…