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An American Journey:
Designing the interface for a CD-ROM

by Whitney Quesenbery

Interfaces are more than skin deep. To create a successful electronic documentation project the structure of the information, the navigation and the visual design must all work together. Research Publications' American Journey series of CD-ROMs on topics in American history is a good example of an interface designed from the inside out.

American Journey Main Menu screen shotThis is the story of the interface for a CD-ROM and how it got that way. The CD-ROM is Research Publications' American Journey, a series of discs on topics in American history aimed at high school students. Each one contains over 700 primary source pictures and documents, along with introductory essays. The first two discs, Women In America and Westward Expansion were released at the end of 1994.

The screens are visually compelling, but what really makes the discs work is how the look (visual design) and feel (navigation) are integrated with the way the information on the disc is organized and presented to users. Let's look at how the disc was put together.

Defining the Project

The core project team included an editor, graphic artists, an editorial database expert and an interface designer.(1) Each brought a different viewpoint to the team discussion of the goals for the project.

The most important editorial goals were to place each document or picture in its historical context and to provide many paths to reach each document.

We wanted the visual design for the program to be compelling, but not to overwhelm the pictures. Because it was targeted for infrequent users in a school library, the disc had to be as easy to use as a book.

On the technical side, we were trying to create an interface template which would work for a whole series of discs. We also worked under the requirement that the program run under DOS.

Electronic Book or Search Engine?

Early in the process we had to decide whether we were creating a hypertext book with search capability, or a database product with good page layout.

It was easy to get caught up in key screen designs or multimedia plans. The technique of looking for the one aspect of a project that is the most important is often helpful in choosing an authoring tool. American Journey could have been done as a database with a powerful search engine, but the design would probably been very different.

In our discussions of the product concept, the idea of using hypertext links to create context and connections between the documents and a desire to carefully control each page made it clear that we were creating a book.

Once we had made that first decision, the choice of Cognetics' hypermedia program, Hyperties® was an easy one. Its markup language and use of stylesheets for screen templates let us import the content from the editorial databases. It has both full text and keyword search and full hypertext capability. Finally, the scripting language let us completely specify the interface navigation.

From the Document Page Out

Wireframe drawing for American JourneyAfter we had a functional definition of the project, we were ready to begin designing the key screens. For American Journey, the most important screens were the ones which displayed the documents and pictures.

We began with line-drawing sketches, flow charts and screen layouts done in blocks of colors. We used these crude representations of the screens to determine what information would be included on each one and to experiment with different relationships between elements on the screen. After several iterations of the design we had a version that everyone liked.

This let all the production departments do their work knowing how it would have to fit on the screen. For example, the writers began to work on copy-fitting as they went along so that titles and other text would fit neatly into the screen space. We had decided to have three different screen templates for pictures, to accommodate portrait, landscape and square pictures. The images were divided into these groups as they were scanned so that they could easily be assigned to the right stylesheet.

From the Main Menu In

While we worked on the basic display screens, we also defined all of the ways to reach a specific document or picture. Our goal was to include routes through the program for all of the different ways users might approach the program, each providing a way to find specific documents or pictures.

  • Introductory essays on specific topics within the general subject area of the disc included hypertext links to relevant items, and helped place those items into a topical context.
  • For students working on a particular era, we included a chronological time line.
  • Keyword search, including the type of document or picture, was designed to create connections based on narrow topics. More than one keyword could be specified for the search, so research was not limited to the editorial perspective of the essays.
  • Alphabetical lists served as a title index.
  • Full text search included citation text, the essays, descriptive text and the full text of the documents.
  • When appropriate, a disc can also include a map with links to geographically related items.
  • A picture album containing a selection of 100 of the pictures is an easy way to see the range of items on the disc.

And Links In Between

As we looked back to our goal of putting each document into a context, we realized that all of the access methods we had designed were ways of reaching one item, but there were very few links between items. 

What we came up with to solve this design goal is the Related Items screen. For each document or picture, we wanted to make it easy to find related essays and time line events and other items with the same keywords. This was a screen that was conceptually simple, but was very difficult to implement visually. Some items had many relationships; others very few. In the end, it looked like this:

The concept map for the "Related Items" screen....
Concept sketch for the Related Items screen
...and the final design

Visual Landscape

Meanwhile, back at the paint programs, the graphics team was working on a visual design. Most importantly, we needed screens which would form a frame for the documents and pictures, rather than competing with them. American Journey is a series, so with production costs in mind, we wanted a design that would work for all discs or be easy to customize.

Search screen for the American Journey UIWe experimented with a number of metaphors for the visual concept, and the one we liked the most was that the screen was a landscape. We found a photograph of an archetypical American landscape(2) used as the basic background. The open field of the sky and the cool tones of the frames worked well with the colors of the pictures.

For the Main Menu, we used a collage of images from the collection to give a sense of the subject of the disc. The collage is the dominant image on the Main Menu. On screens one level away, a text area covers part of the collage and it disappears completely on later screens.

A surprise benefit of this approach was that it limited the number of screens which had to be specially created for each disc.

Designing from the Inside Out

Content and information organization drive design. What made American Journey successful was that the interface was based on user needs and that the structure and visual design were carefully interrelated.


(1) The core team for American Journey included from Research Publications: Chris Cipriano, Editorial, Lorie Freed, Editorial, William Reilly, Editorial Technology; and from Cognetics Corporation: Paul Hoffman, Graphic Design, Whitney Quesenbery, Interface Design, Marc Reed, Graphic Design, Cheri Lockett Zubak, Help

(2) A view from Galena Summit in Idaho. I took this picture while driving from Salt Lake City to Boise

Paul Hoffman of Cognetics Corporation continued to create the visual elements for these discs until 2001.

This paper was originally published in the Proceedings of the 42nd Annual Conference, Society for Technical Communication, 1995

The URL for this article is: http://www.wqusability.com/articles/aj.html

Whitney Quesenbery works on user experience and usability with a passion for clear communication. She is the co-author of Storytelling for User Experience from Rosenfeld Media. Before she was seduced by a little beige computer, Whitney was a theatrical lighting designer. The lessons from the theatre stay with her in creating user experiences. She can be reached at www.WQusability.com