Kevin Cheng  

Visualizing the Future of Interfaces

July 5th, 2004 by Kevin Cheng :: see related comic

What is interactive information visualization? Let’s first look at information visualization, or info viz for short. Info viz is exactly what the name implies - methods of visualizing data, typically large amounts of it, in a coherent and organized manner. A simple bar chart, pie chart or graph is an example of information visualization. More complex visualizations can be found within just about any work Edward Tufte works on. Interactive information visualization, is info viz that can be manipulated. You might even say it’s info viz with an … interactive component!Interactive information visualization may look like little more than fancy circles and pretty colours. Because of numerous examples of poorly executed ideas, many have become incredibly cynical at the very idea of it. These applications have also begun to create an impression that interactive information visualization is meant to be the “next big thing” - perhaps a new way of navigating through computers like Johnny Mnemonic or Lawnmower Man. Earlier, I said info viz rocks and it does. A lot of great applications are coming out that showcase my point.

Tom mentioned Grokker awhile back which was an interesting way of visualizing search result. The usefulness of it was also debated heavily in the same thread. We also linked Music Plasma, an interesting visualization of bands and the genres they occupy. In our little experiment on Friday, Arthur mentioned one of my favourite examples of info viz - the tree maps used by Smartmoney.com’s “Map of the Market”.

Info viz can be incredibly powerful. Maybe the reason people don’t recognize the potential is because creating info viz tools is hard. Tufte has dedicated his career to visualizations without even an interactive component. He’s shown, on numerous occasions, not only the power of info viz, but also the difficulty in executing it in a useful manner. Those of us working in HCI can attest to how difficult it is to make anything interactive. Combining these two aspects, interactivity and info viz, we end up with a lot of rope to hang ourselves with.

Consequently, most of the tools we see out there are either potentially useful but difficult to use, easy or use but completely useless, or neither useful nor usable. Does that mean info viz sucks or just that most are doing a bad job of it?

I think to create effective interactive info viz tools, the tool needs to satisfy a number of requirements. Some of these requirements are applicable to broader scopes of course but you can see the tools I mentioned above have these aspects in common:

  • Data Rich: People are extremely efficient in scanning reasonable sets of data and spotting patterns. We can look at tables and determine quite a lot from them. At a certain point, the data becomes too enormous and other tools are needed.
  • Focused: Look at the examples I discussed earlier. All of them, with the possible exception of Grokker, operate within a really finite and specialized space.
  • Flexible: In the space that the tool is occupying (e.g., financial data in SmartMoney), the tool should give a users the ability to view the data across a variety of axis such that they can find the see the data pertinent to them. In SmartMoney, users can view different time periods and highlight according to interest in gainers or losers.
  • Usable: Many tools offer unlimited flexibility to the point that nobody knows how to get it to show the data they are interested in.

A hot topic of 2003 was the executive dashboard. Everybody was talking about creating one and how useful it would be. The premise is that executives of larger companies could use these dashboards to quickly survey the status of their company and identify problematic areas that require attention. Such a tool fits the criteria above perfectly - the amount of data involved is massive, there is a need to be flexible and see different areas of performance and the application is highly focused (or at least should be).

Executive dashboards and other trends are showing that info viz tools are here to stay. As we gain access to more and more data, the number of relevant tools will also increase. I think in time, we will find more useful consumer level info viz tools as well, with examples like SmartMoney being the tip of the iceberg.

2 Responses to “Visualizing the Future of Interfaces”
Reed Hedges wrote:

Infovis Turbulence

From OK/Cancel (by way of UV): Comic Strip Kevin Cheng says it ROCKS No Way says Tom Chi Kevin visualizes the future a bit Tom muses further about its suckage Also, InfoVis.net is four years old now….

Reed Hedges wrote:

Infovis Turbulence

From OK/Cancel (by way of UV): Comic Strip Kevin Cheng says it ROCKS No Way says Tom Chi Kevin visualizes the future a bit Tom muses further about its suckage Also, InfoVis.net is four years old now….


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OK/Cancel is a comic strip collaboration co-written and co-illustrated by Kevin Cheng and Tom Chi. Our subject matter focuses on interfaces, good and bad and the people behind the industry of building interfaces - usability specialists, interaction designers, human-computer interaction (HCI) experts, industrial designers, etc. (Who Links Here) ?