Semantic Zoom

What is it?

Powers of Ten, a 1977 film by Charles and Ray Eames, illustrates the relative nature of things by literally zooming out from a human to the earth, and from the earth to the solar system. The point is simple but powerful: Changing the scale of a problem illustrates new problems, issues, and opportunities, and it allows the designer to recontextualize or reframe the problem. Any problem or situation can be repositioned in a larger or smaller context. For example, zooming out from the homelessness problem shows it as part of a larger story of wealth, opportunity, public policy, and education. We also can zoom in on a specific part of homelessness, such as shelters, an individual shelter, a policy enforced in an individual shelter, or a specific person enforcing a specific policy at an individual shelter. Each time we zoom—each time we recast the problem—we see new things, identify new opportunities, and consider a problem from a new perspective.

Everything is embedded in a larger context, and everything has smaller details, so semantic zoom is possible in every situation. And in forcing a semantic zoom, you may realize you don't have the knowledge or expertise to describe the new perspective, so this method can also provoke further research.

How do I do it?

A semantic zoom leverages the concept map—described above—as a base visualization. To produce the various zooms, follow these steps:

  1. Start with the concept map, and consider this the base zoom level—"zoom level 0."
  2. Back away from the map, literally and figuratively, to consider the broader context in which it exists. What are the large social and political constructs that contain the material? Name these constructs, and write these names close to the existing words.
  3. Repeat Step #2, continuing to back away—zoom out—and consider broad context. At each zoom, create a new visual representation of the system.
  4. Gradually zoom back in, while focusing on a specific aspect of the original concept map. As you zoom in, map boundaries of the map change, forcing you to add details, entities, and actions.
  5. After performing several zooms in both directions, consider the results. Which areas were easy to describe, and which were difficult? Did you find yourself making assumptions or guesses about content? The answers indicate the limitations of your knowledge and areas for additional research.

An example of a Semantic Zoom

When should I use it?

Use a semantic zoom to see a problem in a new way. This tool is typically useful after you have researched a given aspect of a system enough to understand what you don't know. The semantic zoom calls attention to the most compelling areas for further research.

What is the output, and how can I use it?

The output of a semantic zoom is a series of visualizations of a system. They look just like the concept map, but they can appear in a series and show multiple scales.

Where can I learn more?

Read Exposing the Magic of Design: A Practitioner's Guide to the Methods and Theory of Synthesis (Oxford Series in Human-Technology Interaction) by Jon Kolko.

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