Interactive encyclopedias & browsable databases

Flexible designs make finding information rewarding.


You need to engage visitors by making a large amount of data interesting.


Augment your database by utilizing any of a number of techniques:

  • Provide views. Produce a series of pages with pre-selected fields, a clear layout, and illustrations. For example, a database of hundreds of insects and their traits might incorporate four views of the most popular data fields for each insect: habitat, anatomy, ecosystem, and history.
  • Include multimedia. Include fields for appropriate audio (clips from famous persons, animal noises) or visuals (photos of the item or its context) in the database design.
  • Graph or illustrate the data. In a weather database, for example, create simple graphs or diagrams to illustrate temperature, barometric pressure, and wind speed, rather than displaying them as mere numbers. These can be generated in real-time, or you can pre-generate all possible conditions and display the appropriate one as an image.
  • Related items. Show connections and provide links to multiple types of related items. For example, in an insect database, provide links to insects in the same geographical area, in the same taxonomic classification, that are competitors, that share common predators, and that are alphabetically adjacent.
  • Hierarchical browsing. Using a series of columns, help a visitor navigate a hierarchical tree. This technique was championed in NeXT’s file browser, and recently in Apple’s iTunes music browser, in which thousands of tracks are quickly narrowed down. The user clicks on a genre, then an artist, then an album. In seconds, the user reduces data down to a few relevant items.


There are typically two ways to use a database: searching and browsing. Searching is intended for visitors who want to quickly find something by searching for keywords. Browsing allows the visitor to wander through the database and discover items they did not anticipate. In other words, the browsing experience is about the visitor’s process of discovery, revealing connections, and creating their own sets.

Web sites vary in their degree of flexibility, ranging from static and fixed presentations to dynamic database-driven offerings. They also vary in their degree of intermediation, ranging from a high degree of organizational control over the presentation to giving users uninhibited control. Static presentations generally make it easier to create rich, compelling, and immersive interactive content. However, in static exhibits, the visitor is strictly an observer; there is no technological extensibility, no editorial extensibility, and very little design flexibility in fixed features. Dynamic features, by contrast, are fluid, flexible, and keep the components (content, presentation and technology) transmutable. But too much flexibility can be daunting; visitors need some guidance and hand-holding.

In an attribute walk, the visitor selects some case and then searches for cases with similar attributes. The technique was developed in a system for searching databases called Rabbit in the 1980s and is now often used by stock photography services that let visitors find similar photos by choosing among attributes of a current photo. In a science web site, for example, the visitors might explore minerals and gems, and move from gem to gem first based on color (more greens), then by hardness (more soft minerals), and then by index of refraction.

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