Ben Shneiderman
Department of Computer Science
University of Maryland
College Park, MD 20742

phone:(301) 405-2680 fax: (301) 405-6707

Information visualization:
Dynamic queries, starfield displays, and LifeLines

The future of user interfaces is in the direction of larger, higher resolution screens, that present perceptually-rich and information-abundant displays. With such designs, the worrisome flood of information can be turned into a productive river of knowledge. Our experience during the past five years has been that visual query formulation and visual display of results can be combined with the successful strategies of direct manipulation. Human perceptual skills are are quite remarkable and largely underutilized in current information and computing systems. Based on this insight, we developed dynamic queries, starfield displays, treemaps, treebrowsers, and a variety of widgets to present, search, browse, filter, and compare rich information spaces.

The dynamic queries are animated user-controlled displays that show information in response to movements of sliders, buttons, maps, or other widgets. For example, in the HomeFinder the users see points of light on a map representing homes for sale. As they shift sliders for the price, number of bedrooms, etc. the points of light come and go within 100 milliseconds, offering a quick understanding of how many and where suitable homes are being sold. Clicking on a point of light produces a full description and, potentially, a picture of the house.

The starfield display was created for the FilmFinder, which provided visual access to a database of films. The films were arranged as color coded rectangles along the x-axis by the production year and along the y-axis by popularity. Recent popular films were in the upper right hand corner. Zoombars (a variant of scroll bars) enabled users to zoom-in in milliseconds on the desired region. When less than 25 films were on the screen, the film titles appeared and when the users clicked on a film's rectangle, a dialog box would appear giving full information and an image from the film. The commercial version of starfield displays became available late in 1996 from IVEE Development under the name Spot Fire.

In our LifeLines prototype, we applied multiple timeline representations to personal histories such as medical records. Horizontal and vertical zooming, focusing, and filtering enabled us to represent complex histories and support exploration by clicking on timelines to get detailed information.

There are many visual alternatives but the basic principle for browsing and searching might be summarized as the Visual Information Seeking Mantra:

In several projects I found myself rediscovering this principle and therefore wrote it down and highlighted it as a continuing reminder. If we can design systems with effective visual displays, direct manipulation interfaces, and dynamic queries then users will be able to responsibly and confidently take on even more ambitious tasks.

The computing industry and the research community have the chance to move ahead with a new generation of systems. In addition to our work, research on information visualization is emerging at key sites such as Georgia Tech's Graphics Visualization and Usability Center, Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center, and Lucent Technologies (formerly AT&T Bell Labs) in Napierville, IL.

References to our research

Ahlberg, C., Williamson, C., and Shneiderman, B., Dynamic queries for information exploration: An implementation and evaluation, Proc. ACM CHI'92: Human Factors in Computing Systems, (1992), 619-626.

Ahlberg, C. and Shneiderman, B., Visual Information Seeking: Tight coupling of dynamic query filters with starfield displays , Proc. of ACM CHI94 Conference, (April 1994), 313-317 + color plates.

Ahlberg, C. and Shneiderman, B., AlphaSlider: A compact and rapid selector, Proc. of ACM CHI94 Conference, (April 1994), 365-371.

Asahi, T., Turo, D., and Shneiderman, B., Using treemaps to visualize the analytic hierarchy process, Information Systems Research 6, 4 (December 1995), 357-375.

Doan, K., Plaisant, C., and Shneiderman, B., Query previews for networked information services, Proc. Advanced Digital Libraries Conference (May 1996).

Johnson, B. and Shneiderman, B., Tree-maps: A space filling approach to the visualization of hierarchical information structures, Proc. IEEE Visualization '91 (October 1991), 284-291.

Kandogan, E. and Shneiderman, B., Elastic windows: Improved spatial layout and rapid multiple window operations, Proc. Advanced Visual Interfaces Conference '96, ACM Press, New York, NY (May 1996).

North, C., Shneiderman, B., and Plaisant, C., User controlled overviews of an image library: A case study of the Visible Human, Proc. 1st ACM International Conference on Digital Libraries (March 1996), 74-82.

Plaisant, C., Carr, D., and Shneiderman, B., Image-browser taxonomy and guidelines for designers, IEEE Software 12, 2 (March 1995), 21-32.

Plaisant, C., Rose, A., Milash, B., Widoff, S., and Shneiderman, B., LifeLines: Visualizing personal histories, Proc. of ACM CHI96 Conference (April 1996), 221-227, 518.

Shneiderman, B., Designing the User Interface: Strategies for Effective Human-Computer Interaction, Second Edition, Addison- Wesley Publ. Co., Reading, MA (1992).

Shneiderman, B., Beyond intelligent machines: Just Do It!, IEEE Software 10, 1 (January 1993), 100-103.

Shneiderman, B., Dynamic queries for visual information seeking, IEEE Software 11, 6 (1994), 70-77.

Williamson, C., and Shneiderman, B., 1992. The Dynamic HomeFinder: Evaluating dynamic queries in a real-estate information exploration system, Proc. ACM SIGIR'92 Conference, Copenhagen, Denmark, (June 1992), 338-346.

Reprinted in Shneiderman, B. (Editor), Sparks of Innovation in Human-Computer Interaction, Ablex Publishers, Norwood, NJ, (1993), 295-307.