Posts tagged "content"
Preparing for defense
To prepare for my upcoming thesis defense this Friday, as well as gather all of the content for my process book, I started to take inventory of everything I produced in the last year. I went through each and every blog entry, thesis-related email, papers in my file folder, my three sketchbooks, my Google docs, bookmarked websites and all of my digital files. After jotting each separate item down on a post-it, I began organizing and sorting them into roughly a dozen different categories. My conclusion: I produced a ton of material over the last three semesters! And I’m still not done producing—in fact the final couple of weeks will most likely prove to be my most productive in terms of creating tangible, demonstrable assets for my thesis.

Preparing for defense

To prepare for my upcoming thesis defense this Friday, as well as gather all of the content for my process book, I started to take inventory of everything I produced in the last year. I went through each and every blog entry, thesis-related email, papers in my file folder, my three sketchbooks, my Google docs, bookmarked websites and all of my digital files. After jotting each separate item down on a post-it, I began organizing and sorting them into roughly a dozen different categories. My conclusion: I produced a ton of material over the last three semesters! And I’m still not done producing—in fact the final couple of weeks will most likely prove to be my most productive in terms of creating tangible, demonstrable assets for my thesis.

Thesis Object & Agency

Following last week’s assignment of describing our thesis characters, is a new exercise which goes into more detail about one particular character’s experience interacting with Contextus. He has a question, uses Contextus, finds the answer himself and proudly shares his theories. Again, a useful assignment preparing me for storyboarding my user journey video…

After he bought the ingredients for tonight’s dinner he is cooking for his girlfriend and her parents, Pat McDaniels relaxes on a park bench, wondering what he’ll talk about with them. Trina and her parents are originally from Haiti, a country he knows is quite poor but knows little else about. Eager to impress them and not put his foot in his mouth, he wants to learn more about Haiti and hopefully have an intelligent conversation this evening. Wikipedia is just a long list of facts and figures, he thinks, if I read about Haiti’s history through that, I’ll probably just fall asleep. I heard about this app called Contextus that helps teach visually through maps. Pat pulls out his iPad from his backpack and downloads and opens Contextus.

He is a little hesitant at first glance. Maps are great for getting directions for travelling somewhere, but I’m not going to Haiti tonight… I’m going back to Brooklyn, he thinks. The first thing Pat notices is a big, bold featured question of the day. Its about why did the Europeans and not the Chinese discover the Americas. He finds that an interesting question, but not for the task at hand, so he bookmarks it for a later reading. As he starts browsing through place, time and subjects, Pat notices how information is organized and classified—economics, politics and history are linked to each other and viewing a timeline of Haiti as a histogram shows a spike in information around 1500, 1800 and 2000.

With his search criteria of Haiti (place), economy (subject) and 1700–present (time period) selected, Pat is presented with a series of overlaying thematic maps in which he can change the opacity, rearrange their order and get more contextual information for each. He begins to see the relationships between natural geography and its effects on a country’s history as well as manmade decisions. Sifting through rainfall, wind pattern, elevation and topography maps, Pat can better understand how Hispaniola’s bisecting mountain range prevented much rain from reaching the Haitian side of the island, thereby reducing arable land and crop diversity. Their history of importing vast amounts of slaves for plantations and a subsequent slave rebellion which banned foreign investment and land ownership had an equally profound effect on the nation’ development.

Pats spots a feature simply called “What if?”. Intrigued, he taps on it and is taken to another map where moving a slider for Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) from Haiti’s current state of 0.2% to 5%, causes graphics on the map to reflect that change. Bars representing infrastructure, GDP, unemployment rate, poverty rate and life expectancy move up or down in relation to the FDI’ value. I had no idea how connected these things are, Pat thinks, the correlation between foreign economic investment and a person’s life expectancy surprises me. Eager to share his theories, he types his responses in the answer forum as he browses through other people’s thoughts on the subject. I get it now, Pat believes, the answers are never that simple and can be quite subjective, but maps are good at showing a ton of complicated information in an uncomplicated way. Armed with knowledge for conversation, Pat heads home for dinner with his possible future in-laws.

Goals, audience, context, content

As I left off in last week’s thesis group meeting, my thesis audience, context and content were all too broad and not clearly defined. I needed to narrow down at least one of those categories (preferably two) in order to move forward and begin listing features that my Contextus (still a working title) app would require. For this to happen, I needed to step back and remind myself of the high-level goals I originally stated as well as list some new goals of mine. In fact, I sketched a quick diagram outlining my thesis structure:

Looking at my purpose statement from January, in terms of clarity and relevance, it feels like it was written a year ago compared to my revised pitch. I feel I’m finally able to better articulate my goals and purpose as well as get feedback from classmates and faculty to make this project more special and unique. Its been made clear to me that I need to stop evolving the big ideas and goals and instead focus on more specific ideas and actions that work in service of those high-level goals. Without further ado, my (hopefully) final list of goals for thesis:

  • Allow people to become better informed and more engaged citizens.
  • Make learning geography and all it encompasses more interesting, more fun and more intuitive.
  • Combine the functionality of Google Maps and Wikipedia in order to bridge the gap between text-based and visual-based learning.
  • Teach basic geographic concepts of juxtaposition, correlation, scale, etc. by showing the connections between subject, place and time (what, where and when).
  • Demonstrate that geography isn’t just points on a map, it encompasses history, politics, economics, demographics, etc.
  • Give people the tools to find answers for themselves, thereby creating a more active role for learning.
  • Create a framework of presenting information to help people retain knowledge better.
  • Present geography as an evolving, often unresolved ‘soft science’ that can be subjective and open to interpretation.

I then listed out audience attributes whether it was demographics (young—old) or psychographics (academic—instinctual) as opposites on a spectrum. While I believe that my audience is generally educated, curious and visual, I realize that keeping this category relatively broad should not have a negative impact on developing this product. However, I will most likely whittle these options down a little further as I start designing the features and UI of Contextus.

Context was a difficult category to narrow down. Should it be more specific in a physical context (home, office, an event, etc.) or in a functional context (browsing, researching, casual learning, etc.)? The beauty of making an iPad app as my advisor Shawn pointed out is that, in the physical sense, it is context-agnostic. An iPad works just as well in bed at home as it does on the subway or the office. Functionally, Contextus is all about learning geography in the broad sense of the term.

Content proved to be equally difficult to better define. Ideally, it should be populated with any subject that has a geo-spatial element to it—a subject that can be associated with a particular (or more than one) place and time. While this may eliminate particle physics from my thesis, it still includes an overwhelming amount of subjects which can be visualized on a map or globe. By treating geography as a soft science that often introduces new, radical concepts (Guns, Germs and Steel and Freakonomics are two examples that come to mind), the content can be introduced as puzzle pieces for the users to assemble, analyze and develop theories of why something happened or didn’t happen. 

The user interface will play a big role not only in how people would navigate through the content but in showing how the content is organized and classified. My hope is that the act of using the UI will be a learning experience in itself. The data cube model can illustrate that the content can be defined as informationally spatial—organized by time, place or subject. By their very nature, time and place can be organized in logical manners (chronologically and spatially); its the subjects that will require much more thought to as effectively and will most likely need to be organized in a case-by-case manner. By treating the information itself as a place one can navigate to, people can hopefully start to see relationships and patterns that are integral to geography (as well as information science).

In conjunction in determining audience, context, content and basic UI principles, first I listed the drawbacks of current learning tools and how they’re insufficient…

  • lengthy
  • dense
  • verbose
  • out of geo-spatial context
  • passive
  • directed

…to which I then listed the benefits adjacent to my thesis…

Geography benefits

  • can view spatial relationships
  • can view people’s relationship with their physical environment (and vice-versa)
  • explains behavior
  • gives insight into history
  • framework for studying human activity
  • ties disparate subjects together

Map benefits

  • its the visual representation and language of geography
  • conveys abstract or complex theories
  • can be updated/adapted/customized
  • its a tool, active in nature when one uses it in search of an answer
  • can be open-ended: no one, direct path to an answer

Game benefits

  • can be fun
  • can have multiple outcomes
  • they’re social by nature
  • they’re dynamic in execution
  • provide incentives to achieve goals
  • skills and knowledge acquired build on top of one another

Although Contextus is not a game per se, I would like it to be an entertaining way to learn. As much as I want to refrain from using the term gamification, it does open up some interesting possibilities. However, I don’t plan to address those possibilities in great detail as time is running out and that is an entire research path I have not explored. 

Lastly, I listed some analogies to help guide the functionality, interface, content strategy and visual design of Contextus:

Next steps: report on the insights gained from Prototype 2 and start developing use cases, features and detailed UI for Contextus. I will make sure to compare every action and design decision I make from this point to the goals that I set for my thesis.

Thesis group meeting 1

Dave, Tina and I decided to start a weekly thesis group meeting for us to discuss our progress, ask questions and get valuable feedback. This was a much-needed development for me, as I missed the camaraderie we had working as a group last semester. I felt like I’ve been working in isolation the last month or so and welcome bouncing ideas around and helping the two of them refine their theses.

Feedback and takeaways from our inaugural session:

  • The world and all of its information is far too vast and incomprehensible to design for. Focus on one story for one country or region.
  • What can make this more unique than just populating it with Wikipedia entries? Think about personalized histories… what if Teddy Roosevelt had left behind foursquare check-ins for us to discover?
  • Imagine layers of maps going back in time. I proposed an interface akin to Apple’s Time Capsule. Tina suggested I make a simple prototype using a rolodex.
  • Thematic maps (a country’s GDP for example) can utilize time-scrubbers (which is nothing new), but contextual menus can pop-up where relevant. They could call attention to outliers of related info that affect or are affected by the first set of data.
  • Start with the question: perhaps the homescreen allows one to search by question or keywords instead of zooming to a specific location first. Today’s featured question can be displayed as well as a list of popular topics.

The feedback and suggestions are in. Now its time to start prototyping!

Thinking about audience

As previously stated, determining the audience for my thesis project has been a pressing issue for me lately. My highly unscientific formula for showing the interconnectivity of thesis components makes me realize its difficult to pinpoint an audience when the form and content is still unresolved. Coincidentally, my new thesis development instructor David Womack recently gave us the assignment to think about our thesis audience, which is good since I feel the need to press forward. He asked us to be prepared to talk about: 

How, when and where your audience might engage with your project
What your audience will contribute to the project

I found it interesting that we were asked to think about how, when and why, but not who, leading me to guess that the who would become more apparent after this exercise. Instead of immediately narrowing down each category, I present the following lists (with the bonus list of why my audience might engage with my thesis project):


  • Public installation: a park, museum, office building lobby, subway/bus/train station or stop
  • Specific event: voting location on election day, conference, presentation auditorium
  • Specific context: United Nations, 9/11 Memorial, outside TV network, security checkpoints, schools & universities
  • Mobile: phone app (in conjunction with a fixed installation), augmented reality (projects contextual info onto nearby relevant surfaces)
  • Transportation: info seen while driving, flying or using mass transit, in and around transportation hubs
  • Home: a 21st-century globe (thematic touchscreen sphere), an expansion to the TV set


  • Anytime
  • Event-driven (election, museum exhibit opening, tradeshow, political negotiations)
  • Seasonal
  • Class sessions
  • Waiting in lines
  • Downtime / leisure time
  • During transportation or journey to a destination
  • While watching the news on TV


  • Solo / with friends & family
  • Remote / on-location
  • Among classmates / among strangers
  • Obviously / inconspicuously
  • With confidence
  • Intuitively / as directed
  • Passive / proactive
  • Viewing / contributing
  • Through an app or website
  • With the aid of NFC (near-field communications)


  • To be better informed about world events
  • To be a more educated voter / consumer / decision maker
  • To alleviate boredom
  • To better appreciate geography and all it embodies
  • To better correlate space/place/time/event
  • To develop new ways of looking at the world (spatially vs. structurally vs. chronologically, etc.)
  • To satisfy curiousity
  • To better understand our neighbors both near and far
  • To learn how interaction design can affect this thesis area of exploration
  • To fulfill their job duties or responsibilities

What will the audience contribute to the project?

  • Stories
  • Statistics and data
  • Images
  • Memories
  • Opinions & perspectives
  • Experiences
  • A human voice
  • Validation (or not) of the technology and design of the project
  • Feedback for improvement
  • Inspiration
  • Knowledge

With so many options, its difficult to draft a user journey just yet. My interests in its purpose lie in broadening perspectives and empowering people to become better informed, more engaged citizens. My interests in form are (obviously) maps and information visualization while my interest in interactions lie in getting people away from a small screen and into the real world with other people. I believe that a thoughtful and considered approach to utilizing these interests will yield something of interest not just to myself but others as well. The question once again is… who?

Form(ula) for improvement?

As my thesis research has progressed over the semester, I feel that for every two steps forward, I end up taking one step back (an enviable situation compared to taking one step forward and two steps back). Recently, my thesis took a turn for the better when I made a number of insights after conducting a series of exercises and whiteboard analyses. My motivation for using maps as a platform for helping people learn about the world around them hasn’t really changed, but the some of the reasons for focusing on geography has evolved in the past weeks.

What I am faced with now is questions regarding three essential components of my thesis: content, audience and form. Should the content inform the audience and form or vice-versa? The three of these are interconnected and have a profound effect on the development of each other which I attempted to explain in a mathematical formula (never my strong suit):

The audience for this thesis topic has been on my mind lately. As it currently stands, my thesis exploration market is general and broad—pretty much anyone at this point. While it makes sense to me that a general audience could benefit from my proposed solution (vaguely defined, which I’ll address in a moment), my gut tells me that narrowing down the audience would be constructive not only for informing the content and form, but for my entire thesis process (and perhaps my sanity). Who would I narrow the audience down to? My classmate Kristin suggested school children. This makes sense in regards to my mission goals of changing perspectives and opening horizons—especially for those young enough to not yet be set in their ways. The can of worms in pivoting to this direction is the need to partially shift research to childhood education and making up for lost time. What are the alternatives to this demographic? College students, American tourists, foreign tourists, politicians, executives… the list goes on.

Content is king for any in-depth presentation and something I will need much help in crafting. In part, this is determined by audience unless the content becomes more important and helps to determine the audience. (Is that a double-bind or simply a vicious circle?) To reiterate one of my earlier assertions: maps are a means, not an end. The map as the most visible, tangible aspect of geography is the vehicle to carry the content and its tone. The content could be about empathy and understanding. Or it could be about exploration and discovery. Meeting global challenges (rising population, limited resources, terrorism, climate change, the ascent of China, etc.) could be yet another source of content. Perhaps its a game visualizing global cause and effect (a simplified, less abstract version of the butterfly effect). Perhaps its some combination of these ideas or none at all.

All of this thinking (in theory) will determine my thesis’s form, the “artifact”, what is it that I’m making. I stated in my proposal a “large-scale thematic mapping interface”, but that could have been wishful thinking written in the wee hours of the morning. I started with an idea of what I’d like to make, an end product loosely based on a fun project last semester working with large subway maps and gestural interfaces. Early on, I vowed not to build a website or an app, but now I think that if those are the best delivery platforms for the content to its intended audience, it might sway my opinion. Other than that, I’d be interested in exploring large-scale projections or augmented reality. Again, once the content and audience are refined, hopefully the deliverable will be clear.

This brings me to one more critical puzzle piece: choosing a thesis advisor for next semester. Liz Danzico’s advice to me is to choose an advisor for their subject expertise, not their reputation. Before I can research potential advisors and their skill sets, I need to know exactly what skills I need. For that, I need to be better informed about my thesis audience, content and form. Any help I can get with this would be greatly appreciated…

A thesis exploration by
Christopher Cannon for the
School of Visual Art's MFA
program in Interaction Design

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