Lessons of Three Dimensions for the Web

by June 10, 2003

We all work, play, and shop in a three-dimensional world. But when it comes time to “jump” online and “surf” to our favorite “sites”, the only thing with three dimensions is our analogies. In fact, nearly all attempts to bring three dimensions to the Web browser have met with little more than criticism (most often for their increased complexity). Nonetheless, there are plenty of ways our perception of Web content and interactions could be enhanced with lessons from the third dimension.

Physical Cues

"When we're exploring on the Web, in some ways it even feels like we're moving around in a physical space... But the Web is missing many of the cues we've relied on all our lives to negotiate space: no sense of scale, no sense of direction, no sense of location." -Steve Krug, Don’t Make Me Think

In the real world, holding a book in your hands tells you a lot about it. Its thickness provides a clue as to how long it may take to read. Its physical properties allow you to make sense of the material. The front of the book will have a table of contents: there you can get a quick overview. Want to see if something specific is discussed? Simply flip to the back of the book and browse the index. If your entry shows up twice, once on page 50 and again on pages 345-370, you might make the assumption that the first passage is an overview of the concept, and the later section provides more detailed information. These types of physical cues come from our understanding of space and are sorely missing online. When you decide to follow a hyperlink, you rarely know how much information you’ll get, in what context it will be presented, or where it resides.

Physical cues could also be used to influence emotional responses to information and interactions. Edward T. Hall introduced proxemics, the study of the perception and use of space, in his book The Hidden Dimension. Hall “argued that differing cultural frameworks for defining and organizing space, which are internalized in all people at an unconscious level, can lead to serious failures of communication and understanding.” If properly applied, however, space has the potential to make interactions more meaningful (for instance, the concept of closeness) and enjoyable.

Navigation Cues

"Many complaints about present systems are about trying to navigate. Partial solutions such as "favorite locations" in Web browsers have been created. But what we are truly better at is remembering landmarks and positional cues, traits that evolution has bred into us and traits that we can take advantage of in interface design." -Jef Raskin, The Humane Interface

Finding your way across cyberspace is no easy task. Your only navigational cues are the occasional menu and a cryptic set of URLs. To make matters worse, there are no landmarks (unless you count Google) to guide you and it’s often quite difficult to understand the overall information space. (How big is this Web site? Have I seen everything yet?) The same is true for Web applications: a lack of a macro (big picture) view of your interactions in most Web-based services leaves users buried underneath several layers of menus and no sense of orientation.

Our understanding of an environment usually begins with noticing and remembering landmarks. Therefore, it’s not hard to see why people get lost when confronted with menu upon menu: there just are no clear positional cues to guide them. Few of us have a map-like understanding of our physical environments or of Web sites. Instead, we rely on paths or sequences, sometimes even stories, to get us to our destination. These routes are illuminated by landmarks that keep us on course and provide valuable feedback on our progress.

A two dimensional system is hard pressed to provide the kind of spatial cues that make path finding comfortable and memorable. Perhaps this is why after nearly eight years of Web site design, users still complain about getting lost within interactions and information.

2.5 Dimensions

A lot of the aversion to three-dimensional interface designs stems from poor implementations of the concept. Products like 3DNA Desktop seemingly arbitrarily apply three-dimensional space to familiar interface metaphors. 3DNA Desktop actually turns your Windows operating system into a loft or a video game world gone wrong.

Instead of a direct application of three-dimensional space, interface designs can benefit from applying concepts from three dimensions. For instance, a spatial interface that introduces “depth” could provide the ability to zoom in and out of information or interactions. Zooming out would allow users to see the context of specific information and its relationships to other content. A broader sense of context is rarely present on the Web. The lack of space, direction, and scale prevents us from understanding the bigger picture and the connections between various information and interactions. Zooming in, on the other hand, could increase the level of detail. (Jef Raskin discusses a similar approach in his description of ZoomWorld, an alternative navigation interface concept.)

A three dimensional presentation of data or interactions can also reveal trends or similarities within information and provide users with the ability to directly interact with the data. Direct manipulation is not a new interface design principle, but our ways of manipulating information are limited by the lack of a third dimension. In fact, we tend to spend more time interacting with buttons and scroll bars than actual content.

Useful and usable three-dimensional Web interfaces may not show up anytime soon. But that doesn’t mean we currently have to confine ourselves to only two dimensions. Any Web site or Web application that layers information is already bordering on 2.5D by introducing depth. Developing ways to present physical and navigational cues, providing context and macro (big picture) views of information and interaction, and allowing more direct interaction with information spaces are all small three-dimensional steps we can take today to benefit Web users tomorrow.