Zoomability, Take 2

A little over a year ago I wrote a piece about how "zoomability" was emerging as a new value in consumer information and media usage, and how it may eventually move from digital interfaces to how our children view the world, becoming a reference model for combining space and information. Bruno Giussani points out a new article in Newsweek looking at the same phenomenon and how the urge to zoom is being fulfilled by a raft of new applications on our mobile phones and other places where we encounter media.

The article makes a good point about the fundamental flaw in limiting information browsing and selection to a hierarchical structure such as folders, where this natural inclination to create mental maps and zoom for information is hindered by the older technical limitations of computing:

'The Internet, it seems, doesn't take advantage of how humans best process information. Evolution granted Homo sapiens a high degree of visual acuity—all the better to pick out camouflaged predators on the savanna—and despite the progress of civilization, we're still highly visual creatures. "Humans are best at scanning over a fixed field and finding what they want," says design guru Edward Tufte, whose books on visual display have influenced generations of designers. Finding a jar of honey in the kitchen cupboard is a simple task—you have an intuitive sense of where it rests in your house and how to access it. Translated to the computing world, the process becomes more deliberate: click the "house" folder, navigate to the "kitchen" subdirectory, find another folder dubbed "cupboards"—and so on. "If you just think about everything in your house, and all the places you know in the world," says (Microsoft's Blaise) Aguera y Arcas, "you have a much richer mental map of all those things than you have of where your files are in your computer." Scrolling and linking are inferior modes of taking in information. "Humans are incredibly good at spatial navigation and incredibly bad at navigating through a list of generic icons or generic text," says John San Giovanni...'

Fulfilling the desire to zoom may present some fundamental changes in the way we work with products and services common to our lives. As our lives, possessions, relationships, tools and information sources become more complex, the need to quickly and intuitively navigate a system map of these things to locate hidden bits of information, see correlations or relationships, or rapidly find failure points points to a need for zoomable visual interfaces to replace the nested folder view or textual links in our lives.

This may also present another interesting point of generational departure: are our children growing up to be more visually oriented than us due to a higher exposure to visual stimulus? Will we be like our parents, struggling to adapt to a major change interfaces in our children's world? Will information vertigo become the new information overload? In the coming decade, easing this transition will become a major issue for designers concerned with interface usability.