18 Jan 2010 · Work

Deep Browsing & Spatial Narrative

This prototype arose from a desire to spatially visualize web browsing history, i.e. the reader’s personal narrative through a vast and variegated information-space. “Deep browsing” to me refers to the semi-targeted but easily distractible reading habits of most search-and-click web reading/research experiences. Modern browsers try to furnish some kind of ‘breadcrumb trail’ using a combination of windows, tabs, and bookmarks (plus some novel features like Safari’s ‘Snapback’), but you still need to hold a considerable abstract model in your head to retrace your steps.

It seems like browsers could afford a much richer visual experience. I looked to a proven technology from antiquity for a metaphor: the codex book. The book, like the scroll before it, works because you trace a linear path through information, with the past/read information on one side, and the future/unread information on the other.

I ran with that in a quick prototype (built in jQuery) with zazzy animations for the reader’s progress through information. (I didn’t hang onto any romanticized page-turning metaphor like we did with Triple Canopy; instead, I wanted to keep multiple documents, or at least excerpts from each, visible in a single glance. The more useful context, the better!) In this video demo, footnotes & external links appear consistently in the right column with contextualizing text; the reader clicks a few, then navigates back to a previously-read text by clicking on it in the left column, where it has been shifted.

This way, each link click wouldn’t just wheat-paste over your reading context, but reinforce the greater context of your reading narrative in a unified, designed way. At any moment, you have deeper visibility into what you’ve read (how you got here) and what further related content exists (where you might go). Although we can, practically speaking, only read one document at a time, I think our spatial memory is capable of holding onto a lot more—and our graphics cards are certainly up to it!

This prototype was prepared as part of a unique presentation last month to Scott Sassa and Neeraj Khemlani at the Hearst Corporation, through Louise Sandhaus‘ class Mutant Design: The Future of Publications. Many thanks to all of them for enabling this work. The full PDF of my presentation is available, although I’ve changed some of the wording & thinking since I wrote it.