Concept Maps Are Confusing

An Associated Press story about concept mapping is making the rounds and getting a lot of attention from the usual suspects. The story discusses work at the Institute for Human and Machine Cognition designed to find a better way to browse information on the web.

IHMC associate director Alberto Canas wants to know, “Why should we organize it as pages? There’s no reason. It’s just that we’re used to it.” He thinks it would be much easier to browse concept maps that provide a graphic representation of a subject and all its related subjects.

I think Canas is on the wrong track. Concept mapping or mind mapping or whatever you want to call it is an excellent way to brainstorm or for individuals or groups to begin to find ways to organize information they already have, but for general use concept maps are extremely confusing and almost useless in my experience as everyday navigation tools.

One of the existing concept maps the Associated Press mentions, for example, is NASA’s concept map for its Center for Mars Exploration, which nicely illustrates everything that is wrong with concept maps.

If I’m a science teacher wanting to organize my thoughts about all of the issues surrounding a Mars expedition for a class unit, constructing a concept map like that is probably a pretty good way to lay out the various things I might want to cover. But if I’m a reader who knows little about Mars exploration, this gives me way too much information.

More importantly the concept maps don’t do a good job of providing proper context for information. I have no idea how important any given choice on the map is nor how relevant it is likely to be to any specific questions I have (unless I happen to view the world in precisely the same way that the person who put together that map does).

On the other hand, compare that to the front page of The Whole Mars Catalog. I’m not sure that the simple list of links is all that more helpful, but it provides essentially the same ultimate navigational tools without being completely overwhelming with arrows pointing everywhere.

I seriously doubt that concept maps will ever be widely used for web navigation.

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