Navigation – paddling the web

When we make websites for clients we analyse their business, their products, and their customers. We create interfaces that are logical, that helps drill down. I am looking to buy a notebook. This company sells stationary. A top-level category then might be “paper products”, “writing and drawing”, “blank paper” or something like that. So I find the 23 types of notebooks they have through drilling down into more specifics. This assumes that I, as a customer, knows exactly what I am looking for.

So for these kinds of interfaces, to expose customers to a wider range, we often make various “you might also like this”, “here is a bunch of stuff on special offers” etc. But the underlying logic is that people have a defined task, and we need to satisfy this in a logical, linear manner.

But people are not that logical. If you have a webshop selling stationary, you could imagine a number of ways – and categories – to sort stuff. “For authors”, “for artists”, perhaps? “For travelling”? You could make some speculative choices regarding time, space, individuals, and tasks. Of course, if you have a webshop you might not want to take the chance on this: there are expectations people have, when they go online to find a pen.

In a way, this site is in itself an experiment in some of this thinking. We have the classic magazine-style subjects:


Then we have the far more speculative ones, that traverse the categories above:

The workings of this is pretty straightforward, and perhaps not super elegant: it is basically based on tags and categories. How we design and think about users and their needs define how we think about interfaces. My argument is that too much of this is based on an engineering mindset. We make an interface for a client, we test it on some potential users, and the tasks we give them are biased. They are already aligned with and biased towards the kind of interface we have made.

We ask the test person to find particular things, and we measure how fast they can navigate to that thing. If it is fast, the interface is a success. Problem is, the real world, and people in it, are far more messy, illogical; and might not have these specific “needs”. Or rather; we have multiple, contradictory needs. I, personally, am not interested in buying an X for myself, but I bumped into this particular X, and it would be a perfect present for Y. Etc.

If there is one category in the mercantile world I hate, it is the term “gifts”. WTF does that mean?! Useless trinkets? Something you can give to someone you don’t really know? Something that fulfills no purpose, other than it can be wrapped? Something that is so neutral that anyone can, with a straight face, say “oooohh! THANK YOU! How nice!” …and then delegate it to the dusty shelf in the spare room?

All navigational items are choices we make on behalf of others, and they are loaded with our own preconceptions of what the interface should do and what tasks it should perform. Of course, if you sell stationary, you do want to fulfill some expectations. You do not want to antagonise your users before they have started. On the other hand: we are messy creatures, and our wants and needs often not clearly stated.

In the case of this site, the experimental navigation might just be confusing or annoying to people – what do I know. But at least, you can surf our content through a different mindset. It is incomplete, it is visually unfinished, but bear in mind: this entire site is a constantly changing experiment. You might hate it. It might be bizarre to you, this might be categories / subjects / groupings you don’t like. But these also contains information, and you will get a delightful range of articles if you click on one.


Fairly straightforward. But articles under these headings are not all about little critters. Click on “plants”, and you will get stuff on infrared and ultraviolet light, storing data in plant DNA, the Voynich manuscript, tribes living in tree-houses, pigments in carrots and a bunch of other stuff. You may not be a horticulturalist, and you might think plants boring, stationary, nondescript greenery; but I guarantee: you will find something surprising. Synthetic life and fictional life is life too, in a way: the former increasingly important in the world, the second has always been essential to our lives.


Hover over “matter” and you will get something like this:

What on earth is the point of “clay” AND “ceramics”? Clay IS ceramics, you might think. Not really: clay is the raw material, ceramics is a product of a process, that includes clay. Prehistoric man made clay figures, not-so-prehistoric man turned them into ceramic figurines by throwing them in the fire. Process. Also, in these categories, there are information. Photography as a process, is bound to be fairly new. It would seem pointless to attach a tag “photography” to an article about – say – prehistoric cave paintings, though they are photographed. The technique of photography is not really part of the story of documenting this artwork. So the articles there would also turn up again under in the timeline under “time”, as “prehistory”. “Parchment” also indicate a particular era, and in fact, also a geographical area.

Why “matter”? This is clearly an ambiguous term. I chose that deliberately for that reason.


The timeline, clearly, is a work in progress. But the principle is pretty clear. It might not work in all browsers, but this does not worry me a lot. I am not crazy about the visuals of it, and are on the lookout for something better. It will do for now.


A map of the world, clearly. But it is important to me not to classify every article as belonging to the physical, geographical location. Some things are fictional and fantasy. If I wrote about The Lord of The Rings, I could of course attach it to England. But the core of LoTR is exactly its fantasy world, and to only connect it to its author would be … well. Reductive, and not really what the story is about. Therefore: deep space, planet earth, oceanic, nature, urban, and fictional worlds.

The goal we have, or at least I, is to make this speculative navigation far more visually interesting. I think this way of thinking can be immensely useful when thinking about navigation and the web. Surprises are good.

Thing is: we have run this site for a couple of years, now, and I have forgotten about a lot of the articles. I use the life, matter, time, and space navigation often. And get delightful surprises. If I am hanging around your online shop, it would perhaps be fun if you could surprise me.

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