Interactive visualization

-- lecture notes, March 6, 2001 --


Interactive visualization is above all a different way of thinking about information work (or: the use of information systems). There is no longer a task-driven user who formulates a precise query, types it into the database search form, retrieves the result and then leaves the computer.

Information work is continuous exploration, continuous learning. The user is in the information space more or less all the time, together with a multitude of heterogeneous information sources. She explores, investigates, discovers, is struck by, learns and changes.

Interactive visualization is a means for achieving such ends. The goal is to design systems that facilitate explorative, long-term, learning information work.

To the user, the information should appear as a pliable material. Something that can be touched, shaped, perhaps immersively.
The interaction must be a very tight loop between eye and hand.
The manipulation must be direct.
The feedback must be rich and immediate.


Early examples  

The computational power and intellectual capacity to experiment with interactive visualization has been in the research labs for more than ten years. Here are a few influential examples.




The early work by George Robertson and colleagues at Xerox Parc has been characterized by literal visualizations. The examples above show the ConeTree and the WebForager. The ConeTree is a straight representation of a hierarchical data structure. The WebForager builds on the notion of web "pages".
From Robertson et al., Comm. ACM 36(4):57-71 (1993) and Card et al., Proc. CHI'96, 111-117 (1996).




The dynamic query concept by Christopher Ahlberg and colleagues at Maryland is an important influence in the rethinking of feedback and tactility in database information retrieval.
From Ahlberg & Shneiderman, Proc. CHI'94, 313-317 (1994).



Visualization also encourages abstraction from the data, as graphic designers have known forever. Typically, this involves condensing and fusing large amounts of data into a few perceptual variables.

The example on the right is a concept of mine from 1995 for the visualization of several Usenet hosts from a user's personal perspective. The shapes of the spheres, and the color, texture, shape and position of the mold patches, indicate new discussion activity that the user might find interesting.


Clicking a mold patch naturally leads to the corresponding discussion threads.


Recent development  

The situation has changed in an important way since the examples above were developed. Computers are now in many people's homes. They are typically connected to the vast seas of information on the Internet, and fairly powerful in terms of graphics. Other information appliances such as cellular phones, PDAs and digital TV sets are spreading and getting connected at a rapid pace.

But still, most of these appliances implement a view on information work and interaction technology that was basically designed twenty years ago.

Here are a couple of exceptions.




In the Visual Thesaurus from Plumb Design, the interactive qualities play an important part in changing the user's view of what words and concepts are.
More on the VT as seductive technology
The Visual Thesaurus (requires Java).




The Brain is a technique for visualizing hierarchical structures. It has been used primarily as a mindmap tool and a navigation device for web sites.
Home of The Brain.


Visualization for whom, and why?  

Good interactive visualization (like any interactive system) depends on a strong notion of who is going to use it, for what and why. Screen candy is easily detected and uniformly detested, particularly on the home web where every minute of download translates into less money in the pocket.

The Matrix is (at least the beginning of) a good example.

Another example is Sens-A-Patch where the goals are to (i) provide a fluent medium for managing personal label collections, and (ii) facilitate serendipitous discovery.




Sens-A-Patch was designed for long-term, explorative personal use. The underlying notion of who, what and why was fairly clear. However, the interaction technique has some qualities that makes it interesting also for public broadcast use (i.e., a web site start page).

A comparative evaluation showed that Sens-A-Patch was strongly preferred over a more traditional design while not being significantly different in terms of information location performance.


Time to act  

The technical prerequisites are in place to move beyond the 1983 notions of information work and interaction techniques.

The potential benefits for the users are significant.

Is the market ready? Are the developers ready?