Explorable explanations according to Maarten Lambrechts

At the DataHarvest+ conference in Mechelen, data journalist Maarten Lambrechts shared three things to take into account when making an explorable explanation. And making an explorables deserves a place on your to do list, because “using explorable explanation media can explain complex topics and principles without tiring their audience with the formula’s or math behind them”.

The term ‘explorable explanations’ was first coined by Bret Victor, in his blogpost by the same name published in March 2011.

“Explorable Explanations is my umbrella project for ideas that enable and encourage truly active reading. The goal is to change people’s relationship with text. People currently think of text as information to be consumed. I want text to be used as an environment to think in.”

Years later the idea of explorable explanations would gain more traction thanks to the work of developer Nicky Case, whorls published explorableexplanations.com.

“What if a book didn’t just give you old facts, but gave you the tools to discover those ideas for yourself, and invent new ideas?”

Enter explorable explanations: interactive tools to teach topics in an active way; all while facilitating the learner with the possibility to explore on his own. Data journalist Maarten Lambrechts is a strong believer in the power of explorables.

“Allowing the reader to actively test his own hypotheses, guided and nudged by the maker of the explanation, leads to much more knowledge then simple text with only some formulas and static images thrown in. Concepts I never really understood (like eigenvectors, for example) suddenly seem to be well in my mental reach when I can explore them visually and interactively.
That is why I think the textbook of the future will explain things explorable.”

In his DataHarvest+ presentation he shares his lessons learned while working on his own explorable explanation – Rock ’n Polling. Three things to take into account when using interactivity to explain complex topics.

1. Step by step

“When making an explorable explanation it’s good to add complexity gradually.” In Rock ’n Polling you start not with an actual poll but with just one interview. It’s later on when the ‘lazy button’ is introduced, that you can start polling. By then you know full well what is represented by the moving dots. This setup also allows Maarten Lambrechts to explain the uncertainty that comes with polls; which was one of his main goals.

Rock'nPoll - Maarten Lambrechts

2. Show outcomes

“Don’t show formula’s, show outcomes”, Lambrecht advises. “Children learn by doing and than seeing the consequences of their actions.” With explorable explanations these ‘consequences’ are the outcome – not the formula’s. Data journalismplatform Fivethirtyeight wondered what it would take for a red state to turn blue and vice versa. It resulted in a explorable where users can shift how people vote, while the text explains what the possible scenario’s for every group in the population would be. It shows outcomes instead of formula’s.

Swing the elections - Fivethirtyeight

3. Visual feedback

“Let your reader explore – it’s called an explorable explanation for a reason… So start by giving control to your reader – and than give them feedback by showing how things have changed based upon their actions.”

An explorable explanation by The Guardian dares you to form a stable government. When you try but fail, you’ll get instant visual feedback. “When you try to make a coalition with parties that won’t collaborate, smiles will turn into grimes”, Maarten Lambrechts explains.

Can you form a stable government? - The Guardian

More explorables

Want to read or see more explorable explanations? Maarten Lambrechts shared his slides here. Follow the explorable explanation Twitter account; or read the thoughts of Max Goldstein or Nicky Case (also on CJR) on explorables.