Communicating Design: Concept Models & Site Maps

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Getting meta: A concept model explaining concept models

Dan Brown’s (different Dan Brown) Communicating Design presents an excellent top-down method for presenting relationships between content on the web. Using nouns — described in the chapter as nodes — and verbs — as connections — we can form sentences of flexible complexity that describe the actions we want users to take on websites. This is called a concept model.

Concept models give designers insight into how content will be presented and the relative connections between parts of the site. Associations to other content that may not have been immediately obvious can be discovered while creating a model. While it yields a structure to overall site content, it’s important to note that concept models are different from site maps in that it’s relational, rather than hierarchical.

Site Maps Concept Models
Represent hierarchical structures Represent all kinds of relationships
Have a clear beginning, but no clear ending May have neither a clear beginning, nor a clear ending
Illustrate how content categories relate to each other Tell a story about the site’s underlying concepts (which may or may not be content categories)
Presume that nodes represent particular pages or templates Make much broader assumptions about what nodes represent

Brown describes this process as multilayer, meaning that once a broad overview has been established, we as informational designers can revise and refine our model to include finer nodes and relationships. What Brown doesn’t suggest in his explanation of the concept is a tool to diagram a concept model. Creating a pencil-and-paper concept model might work in initial layers, but as complexity increases you may want to consider a digital utility. Tools like Visio for Windows and OmniGraffle for OS X are built with this application in mind. Even Prezi is flexible enough to be refactored for concept modeling.

As mentioned, the other part of developing a site overview is a site map. Site maps typically give a taxonomic view of a website with the clear intention of showing where things are. Where the node-connection idea drove concept modeling, site mapping is more driven by pages and links. A good point Brown makes is that site maps have the simultaneous function of describing site navigation. In designing a site map, try to keep data to a three-level maximum.

Site Maps Concept Models
Describe a website hierarchy Describe a complex concept
Use web pages as the basic unit of currency Use concept as the basic unit of currency
Have a very clear starting point Have ambiguous starting and ending points
Show hierarchical connections between pages Show semantic connections between ideas

In practice


What’s really interesting about concept models is that node-connection relational data is being ‘graphed’ by one of the most successful online companies ever: Facebook. What Facebook calls the Open Graph is really a living concept model being written to a database every time an action is taken on (and now, off) the site. Connections are called edges, depicted in the graph as actionable content.

The new Timeline profile design comes as part of a larger set of underlying structural improvements to Facebook itself. The company revised its Open Graph to reflect edges as being anything — opening up the capability to take social action on the web as a verb, just as you like things today on the site.

Print Project Proposal: 9/11 and Online Archives

The print project that I am proposing for this course stems from my interest in the role of digital media in the evolution of cultural memory. The central question driving my attention to this area of study lies in discerning whether or not technology is having a significant impact on public discussion and collective understanding surrounding the remembrance of historical events. By exploring more recent history, in particular the destruction and loss of lives in three American cities on September 11, 2001, it becomes possible to explore how the expanding digital humanities movement is changing our understanding of the archive. The proliferation of born-digital content leading up to this national tragedy has resulted in numerous online archives dedicated specifically to this event, as well as the availability of materials in special collections as part of larger projects. These archives espouse vastly different purposes, aggregate varying types of content, and originate from a variety of civic, federal, commercial, and individual sources.

In surveying the websites yielded by appropriate keyword searches, I hope to create a clearer picture of how the archive is being enacted online. For each site, I will attempt to provide a concise summary of what the stated goals for the project are, who funds and maintains its offerings, how content is collected, whether content is limited to a specific subset or leans toward universal collection of relevant artifacts, how content is organized and presented, whether user-generated content is allowed or encouraged, what types of policies are in place regarding access and responsibilities for long-term upkeep of the collections, and whether the site appears to curate their materials with or without bias. It will also be useful to explore whether or not these online archives appear to have implied audience, either professional or amateur, and whether the low cost of online broadcast opens up the mnemonic discussion to minority voices such as conspiracy theorists and 9/11 deniers.

I am further interested in seeing what role the traditional physical objects associated with historical practice have found in online archives. Not having yet delved into the research, I would assume that these sites are dominated by born-digital content that is easy to upload and manage while tangible objects languish under the same time and resource constraints limiting how quickly they can be documented and processed for viewing online that are currently affecting the digitalization of historically offline archives of pre-digital artifacts. Where relevant in the case of websites that simultaneously offer physical access to collections, as is the case with the National Archives, I will discuss this divide between offline and online at additional length by looking at differences in policies for access of materials and how much of the total content is available online.

Finally, the diversity of online archives presenting content relevant to this particular historical event includes some that allow user comments and/or reviews of specific content, as well as usage or download statistics. Whenever possible, this information will be included and discussed in hopes of sketching out how the content is being used and how those users or site visitors identify themselves in relation to the material.

This paper will work in concert with another paper that I am preparing this semester that will look specifically at policy issues surrounding user-generated content in the online archive. Hopefully, these attempts to create a tentative framework of how online archives currently function will underwrite future research into what effect broader access to these primary materials has on the shape of the public discourse of cultural memory.

Project Idea: Historic House Museums on Facebook

As Professor Trevor Owens notes in “Tripadvisor Rates Einstein” social media sites not only provide unique access to a “sense of how individuals have interacted with these museums, monuments, and memorials” but social media sites also become “part of the frame through which other individuals interact with these places.”[1]  At their best, social media sites help staff understand who their audience is, and what they are most interested in learning about.   They also have the potential to influence how people see museums, etc. and what they are interested in getting out of an experience at a cultural site.

For my project, I am interested in looking at how historic house museums in Washington D.C. and interested members of their audiences use facebook.  How museums interact with their audience, the broader public, and specifically, their facebook fans?  How does that audience use the facebook platform to interact with the staff of a historic house museum?  Does facebook primarily function as an advertising tool, or does it help facilitate conversations about educational and interpretive content?  Is it effectively used as a platform to allow visitors to bring their learning home with them?  Do users feel comfortable engaging with material at more than a surface level?

I propose to “like”, follow and analyze the pages of the following historic homes and gardens in Washington D.C. : Arlington House, the Robert E. Lee Memorial, Dumbarton House, Tudor Place Historic House and Garden, President Lincoln’s Cottage, Woodrow Wilson House, and Hillwood Estate, Museum & Gardens.  I will track the activity on these pages and compare how these institutions interact with their audiences through facebook.  As an additional source of comparison, I will also track the activity on the facebook page of the National Museum of American History, as a potential industry standard for facebook interaction, in order to see if social media sites are able to function as a level playing field for museums with small and large resources to interact with visitors on equal levels.

Additionally, I propose to look at the relationships between the online presences of historic house museums relate to individual’s attempts to craft their own online identities.  Who typically “likes” a historic house museum page?  Who reviews historic house museums?  Who is willing to include the names of historic house museums in their posts as a representation of their identities and interests?

I believe that research that creates knowledge about the best uses of facebook by historic house museums could be beneficial to the field and for me in my future career as a public historian.


[1] Owens, T. (2012) ‘Tripadvisor rates Einstein: using the social web to unpack the public meanings of a cultural heritage site’, Int. J. Web Based Communities, Vol. 8, No. 1, pp.40–56.

Print Project Proposal: Online Debates on the Civil War

For my project I would like to research the debates, discourses, and book selections of online hobby historians of the Civil War. I intend to look at various blogs regarding the Civil War as well as websites about the Civil War created by hobby historians, and also  discussion boards that foster an online scholarly community for hobby historians. I intend to compare the debates and major issues that non-professional historians talk about to those debated by professional scholars within the academic community. I expect to find that professional historians incorporate a broader historical context regarding the Civil War and its carnage but I am curious how non-professionals construct their views about the Civil War.

I expect to find many debates over military tactics and strategy from the war. Because many hobby historians have military backgrounds, I expect to find a wealth of information regarding major battles like Gettysburg, Vicksburg, and Antietam. I will also closely study the literature that these hobby historians are reading to construct their views and opinions about the battles.

For example, non-academic historian Shelby Foote wrote a three volume behemoth of a work about the entire Civil War. I am curious to find out if non-professional history students and buffs imbibe Foote’s monograph collection or are they more likely to absorb James McPherson’s classic narrative, Battle Cry of Freedom? One website I looked at included a poster’s top twelve history books about the Civil War and the list included two books by the late professor Bruce Catton and current professor James McPherson. This interplay between non-professional hobby historians and professional historians is a key focus of my project because I am in part trying to answer the question: “how much influence does academia have over the non-professional community in a topic like the Civil War?”

Another website I examined lists a blogger’s favorite publishers, which include both the University of North Carolina Press and another, smaller online publisher for e-books for non-professional historians. I expect to find a messy, convoluted relationship between non-professional and professional historians in which some non-professional hobby historians sometimes resort to professional academic works while others do not.

Lastly, I am interested to look for examples of contentious, heated arguments that amount to cyber bullying regarding Civil War debates. Professional scholars on discussions boards like H-Diplo might give an occasional jab at a fellow colleague on his or her views but they do not resort to name calling or other vituperative behavior. I am interested to look at online debates held by hobby historians and to look for examples of cyber bullying to see if they can hold civil debates about controversial, divisive topics.

Wikipedia, Neutral Point of View, and the American Revolution

In addition to being a topic that fascinates historians, the American Revolution has captured the interests and attention of countless Americans outside the history profession. For many Americans the Revolution has become a highly romanticized time period. Great men like Thomas Jefferson and George Washington are still regarded by many to be the paradigms Americans should base their beliefs and values upon. What exactly these men represented is interpreted in many different ways by Americans. The Wikipedia page for the American Revolution reflects some of this debate in its talk page, as people ask questions even as fundamental as whether it is appropriate to call the American Revolution a Revolution. The paper proposed here intends on examining how the Wikipedia tenet of “Neutral point of view” holds up when applied to such a widely interpreted topic. To achieve this, the paper will examine what kind of things are debated on the Wikipedia talk page; do Wikipedia editors discuss questions over evidence and validity of interpretations? How do they resolve differences in visions of what the founding fathers represented? These questions have the potential to not only reveal what standards frequent Wikipedia users hold evidence too, but also what their political culture is like and how they resolve ideological conflicts. With this in mind the proposed paper will compare the debates that take place on Wikipedia with the debates professional historians have. In this age of the rise of the internet and the increased ability of public participation in creating historical memory it is important to understand the similarities and differences between the historical profession and this new brand of Wikipedia historians.

To properly examine and understand what is taking place in the talk pages of Wikipedia I will immerse myself in the talk pages of both the Wikipedia page for the American Revolution, and also several other Wikipedia pages. If possible I will also attempt to acquire any available data that would provide my paper with an idea of what demographic primarily edits Wikipedia. Some demographic information can be found on Wikipedia itself, but these statistics are limited. To further increase my understanding of how Wikipedia works I will utilize the Rosenzweig article and any other articles about Wikipedia and the idea of “Neutral point of view.” I will also draw upon several important pieces of the historiography of the American Revolution, such as Bernard Bailyn’s The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, and Woody Holton’s Forced Founders. Other works will be drawn upon if seen to be applicable.

In an age where the relatively unknown and un-vetted Wikipedia editor has the potential to define how Americans understand the past, it is critical that historians adapt and find ways to inject their voices into the debate and re-imagine their role. For decades the work of most historians have remained out of public view, but the new era brought about by the internet has given historians the chance to change that.