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May 17, 2004: Connecting Top-Down and Bottom-Up Visually

I was poking around, Googling "information discovery," and stumbled on a simple but really useful diagram created by someone named Keith Stanger. Who happens to be a librarian (same background as me). Who works at Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti (same county as me). Who lists Bloug on his blogroll. Very cool. Gotta love the serendipity of the Internet.

Anyway, the diagram is a hub-and-spoke network of "communications channels and information discovery tools" for education. The major nodes echo aspects of the common questions library patrons might have when they reach the reference desk, such as "Are there dissertations that cover the topic I'm considering for my own dissertation?" or "I'm looking for an organization that sets rules for high school sports." The leaves represent where the answers are likely to be found. Clearly this would be quite useful to a reference librarian trainee. I certainly could have used it during my aborted career on the reference desk back in the late 20th century.

The diagram would also be useful for designing the information architecture of a library's public web site. The major nodes, mapping to users' information needs, serve as the "top-down" information architecture, answering their common questions. The "bottom up" nodes (or leaves) provide the answers. Of course, this architecture would only help you find out where to look for the answers; you'd still have to grapple with Infomine or Medline to find what you were looking for in the first place. I describe this process as the "IA two step dance": first show users where to find the answer, then help them find it there. In the enterprise setting, the first step might be directing users to the relevant content silos (often by way of hierarchical navigation or guides), and then helping them find what they're looking for within those silos (typically through search or contextual navigation).

For some reason, I find Keith's hub-and-spoke approach much more compelling than the typical Visio-style hierarchical site map which starts with the main page at the top. Maybe it's because Keith's diagram places the user smack dab in the middle, rather than floating somewhere above the main page box, offstage if you will. It also seems to use page space more efficiently.

For the early brainstorming stage, Keith's approach could prove especially useful; later on, the diagrams could converted to traditional hierarchical site maps. Or maybe that old standby of cool mental mapping software products, The Brain, would be helpful for generating formalized versions of these diagrams (interestingly, their site now proclaims an enterprise version).

Those of you who are working on enterprise information architectures: are you using similarly non-traditional approaches to diagramming large, distributed information spaces? At what point in the process are they most useful? And would you be willing to share them? If so, they should be added to the AIfIA IA Tools collection.

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Comment: Mauro Mello Jr. (May 26, 2004)

Louis - howdy!

That diagram is a MindMap - I guess you must have seen it elsewhere (check Tony Buzan's The Mind Map Book and similar entries).

It is an interesting concept that purports to use the same approach the brain is believed to use to organize information as a means to organize it and communicate it.

It is a relational and associative network diagram, which explores linkages between concepts and ideas to arrive at other concepts and ideas. In a sense, once you identify a criterion, it becomes hierarchical (networks can also be seen as strictly hierarchical), but has the benefit of not locking you into a rigid representation of the subject.

One can easily create these diagrams with pencil, crayons, paper, adhesive tape, PostIt notes and an open mind.

That diagram was created by one of the available software tools that create MindMaps (Google "mind maps software").

Serendipity? Same background? Same county? As you said, gotta love the serendipity of the Internet - check also social networks, graphs, emergence, small worlds.

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