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Knight-Mozilla Learning Lab: Week 1

July 18th, 2011

In all of the lectures I attended this week (with Aza Raskin, Burt Herman and Amanda Cox) a few messages were reinforced in my mind:

(I could write much more on these alone, but that will have to wait.)

These concepts are not new but are evidently at the core of what makes these people successful, so I’m grateful for having them refreshed in my mind. I can apply these simple principles not only to my Knight-Mozilla project but also to my personal and professional work.

It’s also worth restating for my own sake Phillip‘s assurance that we should worry about what’s possible, not what we can build ourselves. It is very clear that I must create some kind of demo or prototype of my idea over the course of the learning lab, be it in a new tool I’ve been made aware of like Protovis or NodeBox, or even simple animation with still images in a PDF. Anything that effectively communicates the concept.

Amanda’s lecture is most directly relevant to the idea I submitted to the MoJo Beyond Comment Threads challenge: the News Tree Visualisation Tool. This tool would act as a complete-as-possible overview of the evolution of a news item, from the first press release or muddled report to the final reply in a dying comment thread, perhaps years later. This overview could then be utilised to familarise oneself with the story, find and participate in active discussions and seek out conflicting reportage or points of view. The age, reliability and importance of each article or comment would be reflected on the tree, amongst other metrics.

I found myself wondering if it would be more useful as a visualisation or a tool; can it be both and still be effective in both arenas?

Amanda explicitly stated that annotation and editing are critical for a successful visualisation. The News Tree concept arose from a conversation on the topic of gatekeepers or Mavens acting as filters on the media we consume, how they can be both useful and harmful, and how they could be bypassed by citizen curation. I still lean towards a system which seeks new branches and trails without curation or bias, but perhaps the true strength of this tool will lie not in the wild tangle I had envisioned, but in the pruned or grafted specimens its users will create and share.

By pointing out the relative strength of refined, static print visualisations versus interactive examples, Amanda also awoke me to the concern that such a tool could be overwhelming for the user. It is therefore my responsibility as designer to present it in such a way that complexity is minimised and ease-of-use brought to the forefront. Which, as I always say I value simplicity and thoughtfulness above all, is the perfect place for me to focus.