Experimenting with visual Tables of contents (I)

by May 21, 20150 comments

I have a personal thing with the way Tables of contents look nowadays.

The way most of them look now is merely a relation of numbers, titles and pages, more or less long and logically structured, but more or less all the same. I know most people -and certainly most evaluators- relate very well with text so probably they won’t see any need on doing this. But I personally struggle when I face one traditional one, and my sight wanders up and down trying to find a sign, a clue on what to read first, what is most remarkable, when the main body starts and ends, or how long each part is.

Data visualization could add a lot of information (and fun) to this indispensable part of a report or a book. Small details that could give the table of content a whole new light. So I’m going to start a little series with ideas to improve this issue.

Let’s say we have this -quite simple, but not appealing- Table of contents, as an example.

traditional ToC


Pretty standard, right?

Well, my proposal is to read beyond what this table is actually saying so it can tell us more about the content it is referring too. For instance, let’s think about the dimension of each chapter. They are not equally long, and maybe that is relevant – longer parts correspond to more relevant deeper sections.

It probably doesn’t make much sense, but we could make a bar chart with the length of each chapter. It could look like this:

Visual ToC b


All right, too geeky for a table of contents. But what if we do a stacked bar chart? And we make it go along with the traditional one? Maybe this makes more sense, as it is a Table of contents that at the same time is representing how long each of the chapters is.

Visual ToC a


But length is not the only dimension we can be looking at! Maybe we just want to guide our readers about what they will find in each section. This could be a mock-up:

Visual ToC c


None of these experiments seem to be definitive solutions, but they help me iterate to find ones I could actually use in my evaluation reports.

By the way, I’m not the only one who is reflecting about this: Wendy Tackett of  iEval actually guides readers in their reports.

I will be sharing more of these ideas as they come up, let me know what your thoughts are… 🙂




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