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Thursday Jun 24, 2004
Tufte Story: AnswerBook

Richard Kenyon's story about Edward Tufte puts me in mind of a Tufte story.

AB LogoA long, long time ago, my friend Eric Bergman and I were working on the UI for Sun AnswerBook, which was a CD-based predecessor to

AnswerBook Screen.Sun had invited Edward Tufte in to teach a session in our Boston office about the Grand Vistas of Information Architecture or something. After the class, we lured him into our usability lab to look at the user interface for Answerbook, of which were were very proud.

(The was waaay before the web or HTML or PDF, and AnswerBook was cool stuff: It consisted of a hierarchical topic chooser and query engine... that served as a remote control to a PostScript-based browser... that displayed whatever section of whatever document you chose in the chooser ... all of which documents were written in troff or Frame or Interleaf and then published into PostScript via ditroff or fmbatch... and we hacked the PostScript and inserted metadata and link comments... and there was an object link resolver underneath that mapped object IDs to the appropriate PostScript pages and sections. And of course we had NeWS so Postscipt rendering just happened for free. (Legend has it that some of AnswerBook served as an early inspiration for parts of Adobe Acrobat, which also sports a page-based model and links embedded in the display file, and a hierarchical view of the content, and whose original Windows architect worked on... Answerbook. Of course, truth be told, our AnswerBook project lead had worked on the legendary Symbolics Document Examiner so... lots of inspiration to go around.))

Anyway... we were very proud of our user interface and the fact that we had a way to browse 16,000(!!) pages of documentation on a CD-ROM.  But browsing the hierarchy felt a little complicated to us. So we asked Tufte to come in and have a look, and were hoping perhaps for a pat on the head or some free advice.

He played with our AnswerBook for about 90 seconds, turned around, and pronounced his review:

"Dr Spock's Baby Care is a best-selling owner's manual for the most complicated 'product' imaginable -- and it only has two levels of headings.  You people have 8 levels of hierarchy and I haven't even stopped counting yet.  No wonder you think it's complicated."


Posted at 09:27PM Jun 24, 2004 by Martin Hardee in Usability  |  Comments[2]