I’ve been thinking more about animations of late.  I am a big fan of diagrams (as you probably infer :), and animations add an important dimension.  However, they’re more problematic to create.  Yet I’ll argue that they can be really powerful.

As Larkin & Simon pointed out in their landmark Cognitive Science article (PDF) “Why a diagram is (sometimes) worth ten thousand words”, a mental model is composed of conceptual relationships between the elements.  And a mental model provides predicative and explanatory power: you can infer from the model why something happened or how to do something.  A diagram maps those conceptual relationships to spatial relationships, providing a memorable framework to both comprehend and remember that model.

Now, sometimes the relationships aren’t static, but change under different conditions.  Then, we need to convey those changes, and so we need a moving diagram, an animation.  An animation can convey things like the effects of introductions of various factors on related elements, such as heat in a steam system, or chemicals in an ecosystem, helping learners understand the dynamic relationships.

For instance, the diagrams I used yesterday to convey a meta-learning architecture could be animated to show the flow and aggregation of the information of competencies over time.  Similarly, for those who have trouble visualizing use of the experience API, an animation could show how individual activity generates data that can be aggregated and then mined, either for specific answers or with machine learning for new insights.  I think that there may be a barrier to comprehending the whole picture (more than happy to be wrong), and here an animation could help.

Animation is inherently more complex than creating diagrams, and requires additional skills than just static visualization.  Consequently, I haven’t developed that particular capability, but I strongly encourage design teams to acquire that capability either internally or a strong partner.

I like the Common Craft ones, which typically include this sort of dynamic relationship exposition, but also narrative (which you also see in  RSA Animate, another favorite).  I remember the ones that explained reproduction that they showed us in school many years ago, stripping away the yucky bits so we could understand the underlying processes (and risks).  Can you think of animations that have really helped you comprehend something?

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