Information Playgrounds: Local Metaphors for Interactive Information
A Visual Design Perspective

Eviatar Shafrir, Hewlett-Packard

Seminar on People, Computers, and Design
Stanford University January 27, 1995


In August 1994, for the Stanford Research Workshop on the World Wide Web, I wrote:

The World Wide Web has opened the door to InfoTravel. With our favorite 'Mosaic' or 'Cello' brand InfoCars we take off and explore InfoSpace. Whatever metaphor we use to describe our online adventures, we are forced to experience them through the windshield of this, that, or yet another aging Desktop. Furthermore, the information exhibits behave as static Documents in Application windows.

While each Desktop is populated with overlapping Windows, displaying dynamic contents and of elastic size, our InfoCars windshields expose us only to Documents where the contents are tiled, scrolled, and static. In addition, we are not really travelling since there is no continuous motion in HyperSpace. We can only jump from one InfoStop to the next and most times without ample guidance or expectation of what's ahead.

At each InfoStop the information itself is now active, hot, and live. This creates an Interaction Dissonance between Desktop behaviors (inside the InfoCar's Dashboard and around its windshield) and local navigation and interaction metaphors unique to each InfoStop (visible through the windshield). Since there is no InfoGovernment to standardize highway signage, the Information Designer must now perform road construction as well as emergency road service duties for bewildered travelers.

More than a year has elapsed since the World Wide Web made national press. We have become experienced InfoTravelers and have accrued enough frequent Web Surfing Miles allowing us to recognize by audio-print alone the presidential cat from the alley variety.

The government-owned car industry (NCSA) with its standard-issue car (Mosaic) has been privatized resulting in widely divergent cruising experiences. Since last summer Netscape has introduced limited 2-D layout, faster access, and low-and-behold: blinking! However the onus of creating meaningful experiences with information found on the World Wide Web still rests with its creators and designers.

As an interaction designer working with professionals creating information and having to answer to consumers seeking to use and understand that information I seek to address the following questions:

Today, I would like to introduce to you the concept of Information Playgrounds. I coined this term to describe custom information experiences constructed for interactive online media such as the World Wide Web.

Information Playgrounds are:

1. information stops containing one or more live documents,
2. sharing a single coherent metaphor of use,
3. ideally containing encapsulated interactions,
4. presenting a well-defined scope of activity,
5. and producing tangible results.

While the search goes on for an all-encompassing Unified Interaction Metaphor Theory, distributed information webs demonstrate the need and appropriateness for multiple local access metaphors. Interactions are manifestations of how we perceive information. An ideal playground will make a single trip across the Web, from server to browser, complete with all its interactivity. Not a spreadsheet - but how about a calculator? Not a chess game - but how about Solitaire? Once inside a playground, users assume a single interaction metaphor. Operating accordingly, they expect a concise set of 'things to do': here I can search and retrieve abstracts; this is a music library; and this is a candy shop, now I can order some brownies.

It is the experience of 'playing' with live information over time, tweeking it, poking it here, test-casing it there, that users take with them from an Information Playground. Users seek validation by extracting information they already know. They are then willing to TRUST results to questions whose answers they didn't know. Combining live information with time spent by users interacting with it produces information experiences, which are the tangible results of Information Playgrounds.

Since each Information Playgrounds has its own rules, look, feel, and clientele, the independent, colorful, multi-facet spirit of the World Wide Web is preserved. At the same time it is possible to package widely varying Information Playgrounds and 'bind' them, if you will, into published volumes of interactive information representing large organizations communicating with diverse visitor bases.

Using overhead and online examples my talk:


Eviatar (Ev) Shafrir, M.Sc. (Scorpio, born 1958) is a visual interaction designer with the User Interaction Design group at Hewlett-Packard in Sunnyvale, California. He holds a B.Sc. degree in Mathermatics and Computer Science from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a M.Sc. degree in Engineering Management from Stanford University. He is the senior designer reponsible for the visual appearance and behavior of Access HP.

His design interests include non-latin screen-font creation, custom software components, and off-the-wall visual metaphors for hard-to-swallow software interfaces. Ev is a member of SIGCHI and of the Association for Software Design. His latest co-authored article regarding online information design titled "Blazing the Trail" appears in the January 1995 issue (volume 27 number 1) of the SIGCHI Bulletin.


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