At MAYA, you’ll often hear references to “infocentric” design. A few past papers expand on information-centricity in the context of our internal research, Visage and Visageweb. But we regularly apply what we learn from our research to our client work, specifically the information-centric software user interface paradigm. What is that, and what makes a user interface (UI) “infocentric?”
Information-centric design places primacy on the information itself to support direct interaction between people and information. That is, it gives users direct, “hands-on” contact with objects that represent the information they will view and manipulate to perform their work. Information is represented as first-class objects that can reside and be manipulated in visualizations, user interfaces, on desktops, in briefing materials, or anywhere else people elect to place it. This is different from the common application-centric UI, where manipulation is through an application and is constrained by file formats.
Ultimately, information centricity is concerned with usability (i.e., it is user-centered) in that it reduces the complexity and restrictions created when people can’t access information directly. It empowers users to capitalize on the skills they already have in manipulating and repurposing objects in the real world, so they don’t have to learn new skills defined by some application designer. Real infocentric design will eliminate the mechanics of running and coordinating applications and working with file system metaphors in order to interact with information. As we like to say, it “lets the users get their hands on the data.”
Here are three basic principles for understanding and creating an infocentric UI:
1. Foundation. An information-centric user interface relies on a solid information architecture (IA) that also drives the system architecture. (i.e., you can’t just build information centricity on top of any old foundation). Design teams must focus first on things (nouns) as the primary information currency of the system. With this focus, they must develop an IA that the whole team will refer to. In the underlying system design, all information objects are fundamentally similar, making an infocentric UI possible.
Representation. Tangibly representing information (information design) in the user interface will establish the perception of “objectness” in the user’s mental model. All information is represented in the form of discrete objects—as “things.” Distinct objects of information should be discernable so that users can separate them from the world around them. For instance, an information-centric visualization is not so much drawn as it is composed—made up of arrangements of “things.”
Interaction. The interaction will adhere to an interaction physics. Whenever possible, infocentric UIs should derive their behaviors from a UI physics, as opposed to “just so” rules-of-thumb. As we use it here, “physics” means simply “a set of behavioral rules with NO exceptions.” In Visage, the interaction physics calls for direct manipulation of information.
These three principles can make information centricity seem deceptively simple. As with anything, however, the challenges lie in the detailed execution. Designing for information centricity is supported by foundational practices here at MAYA in information architecture, information design, and interaction physics.