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Look Around

Take a moment and look around. Are you inside? Then you might come across books, a pile of mail, your computer, and your television. Or maybe you’re outside, carrying your mobile device and checking your appointments. The world we live in is surrounded by ubiquitous information. Information that is visual, audible, and tactile. It is meant to inform, to entertain, to instruct, and to warn. Because we are constantly bombarded with this information in our daily lives, we must quickly collect, filter, store, and process which information is important to use for specific tasks.

Consider a busy intersection you are trying to cross. You are surrounded by the sights and sounds of pedestrians conversing, cars and trucks honking, birds flying, signage on billboards, and thousands of other types of stimuli. Our minds have an amazing ability to focus on the task at hand, filter the surrounding noise, and process, store, and allow us to act on only the relevant “signal” information.

When the crosswalk signal changes to “Walk,” we identify the sign, interpret its meaning, determine an action to move our body forward, and carry out our actions by walking until we’ve crossed the street, achieving our goal.

Understanding how we process and filter visual information, or data, will help us to design effective displays of information on mobile devices. Let’s first explore the types of information we will encounter.

Types of Visual Information

All humans have more or less the same visual processing system. However, without a standardized way to explain and notate our perceptions, our communication of this in- formation becomes arbitrary and ineffective when designing to display information on mobile interfaces.

Ware (Ware 2000) introduces a modern way of dividing data into entities and relationships.

Entities are the objects that can be visualized, such as people, buildings, and signs. Relationships (sometimes called relations) define the structures and patterns that entities share with one another. Relationships can be structural and physical, conceptual, causal, and temporal.

These entities and relationships can be further described using attributes. These are properties of both the entity and the relationship, and cannot be considered independently. Some examples of attributes are:

For each of these we mean the attribute as it applies to a specific item. Not texture in general, or the texture of paper, but the texture of a specific type of paper (or even a specific sheet of paper).

Classifying Information

In addition to creating descriptions of our perceptions, we have also standardized a way to classify them. Common classifying schemes that we use are:






Geographical - Using location, such as city, state, country, to organize data.

Topical - Organizing data by topic or subject.

Task - Organizing data based on processes, tasks, functions and goals.

Audience - Organizing data by user type, such as interests, demographics, knowledge and experience levels, needs and goals.

Social - A collaboration of organizing data by users who share the same interests. Such as tagging, adding to a wiki, and creating and following twitter feeds.

Metaphor - Organizing data based on a familiar mental model to the user. Such as organizing computer files with folders, trash, and recycle bin.

Organizing with Information Architecture

Figure 2-1. Even when given pen and paper, people will make lists, so it is not surprising that lists are the most common interactive element in mobile devices. Lists can be adapted almost infinitely, for viewing or selection, for any size, and for any type of interaction. Now that we can describe the data we perceive and knowledge types we store, we must understand how this information should be structured, organized, labeled, and identified on mobile user interfaces.

One of the most common organization structures humans have used through time is a hierarchy. A hierarchy organizes information based on divisions and parent-child relationships. When using hierarchies to organize information, Peter Morville explains rules to consider (Morville 2006): categories should be mutually exclusive to limit ambiguity. Consider the balance between breadth and depth. When determining the number of cat- egories regarding breadth, you must consider the user’s ability to visually scan the page as well as the amount of real estate on the screen. When considering depth, limit the scope to two to three levels down. Recognize the danger of providing users with too many options.

Another way to organize information is by faceting. In this, there are no parent-child relationships, just information attributes, such as tags, which may be sorted or filtered to display the most appropriate information. The tags do not have to be explicit, and faceting may be accomplished by searching text descriptions, or even through unusual methods such as searching for shapes, patterns, or colors directly within images.

Of course, these two methods, hierarchy and faceting, may be used in conjunction. A hierarchically ordered data set can also have tags attached to it, and the facet view may combine both strict and arbitrary ordering to display the information the user wants.

Date and location are essentially special cases, and depending on the data or needs they may be approached either way, even though they are strictly defined. For example, location can be an arbitrary value, with filtering or sorting for distance around a single point. Or it may be considered as a hierarchy of continent → nation → state → county → city → address.

Information Design and Ordering Data

Figure 2-2. Grids are used to display ordered data such as photos by date, or for user-organized information such as home pages, where they often become filmstrips as well. Grids can lend themselves to selection, reorganization, and even inclusion of larger items, as long as they fit in the grid.

You can use the way in which people perceive attributes to communicate the relative im- portance and relationship of informational elements on the page. This design of pages or states, when it falls directly from the information architecture of the entire product, can be called information design. Although many methods of considering these arrangements exist, an adequate grouping is from most to least important. Position is generally more critical to communicating im- portance than size, which is more important than shape, and so on:







We will discuss these in detail in other chapters as well. Here, the concept is useful when determining how to relate the elements within a single informational item, and how to keep the elements and adjacent items from becoming mixed. Rules and bars of color are but some of the techniques. The preceding list covers six categories, with hundreds of design tactics included.

It is also useful to decide what information must be present. More can be said about a good, easy-to-understand interactive design by what is left out of any particular view, than what is included. For each of the information displays detailed in this section, only a portion is shown, and details, or alternative views, are available when the user takes action.

Naturally, make these decisions by following heuristics, standards, and styles of design that already exist, such as OS-level standards and universal hierarchies of visual communication. Most decisions for an existing platform can be easier to make by consulting the style guide. Only a few choices will exist, and these will be well understood by users.

Patterns for Displaying Information

One good way to think about the topic of interactive design is that it’s all about displaying information. This chapter in particular is concerned with components whose sole task is to present ordered sets of information so that users may understand and act upon them.

These patterns have been developed and refined based on how the human mind processes patterns, objects, and information:

Vertical List

Infinite List

Thumbnail List

Fisheye List



Film Strip


Infinite Area

Select List

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Display of Information (last edited 2013-04-10 23:57:11 by shoobe01)