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Ben Shneiderman on information Visualisation
by Juan C. Dürsteler [message n 57]

Ben Shneiderman is one of the gurus of Information Visualisation. We interviewed him in London on July 25, 2001 at the conference IV2001

Ben Shneiderman is professor in the department of Computer Science , founding director of the Human Computer Interaction Laboratory of the University of Maryland at College Park. 

Ben has also helped spawn the company Spotfire where he’s a member of the board. He is one of the gurus of Information Visualisation, field in which he has contributed specially from the user interface standpoint. 

He is also one of the authors of the first book entitled "Readings in Information Visualisation: Using Vision to Think."

Ben Shneiderman*

During the Conference IV2001 held last July in London we had the opportunity to interview him. What follows is an excerpt of the interview.


It appears to be some overlapping and confusion between Information Visualisation, Information Design and Information Architecture. What do you think about this.

Ben Shneiderman

There is great interest now in the design of visual presentations of information from many sources. I think Information Architects focus on the conceptual model quite separately from the graphic presentation. 

The Information Designers then try to use graphical design methods to lay out a display in an orderly way to suggest hierarchies or networks and to present information by using size, colour, highlighting to show relationships. 

I think that information visualisation is more tightly related to the user interface and the dynamics of screen motion so as to present much larger amounts than what we see in a piece of paper. For me, Information Visualisation is a compact presentation of information AND the user interface. […]


So do you think that these disciplines are overlapping?

Ben Shneiderman

They are overlapping for sure. We are always learning from each other.


What are the main challenges in Information Visualisation?

Ben Shneiderman

There are many, many challenges. We need to understand the theoretical foundations based on perceptual psychology and cognition, and we have to understand the basic notions of navigation. We have seen many visually appealing interfaces with hundreds of textual items laid out in a three-dimensional space and yet, we know that a linear arrangement of a textual list better supports very rapid scanning. 

So we have to understand how to combine visually appealing designs with effective designs. The next set of challenges is the applications. We have to learn how to tune all the tools we have developed in the last 10 years to fit the needs of pharmaceutical drug discovery, genomics research, oil well exploration, manufacturing control, etc. Each domain has many special problems that we must understand in order to apply information visualisation techniques.


How do you envisage the future of Information Visualisation? What techniques are the most promising ones?

Ben Shneiderman

To be successful in the long term we must understand the needs of the users for the application domains that we work with. The first questions are: what are the users skills and what are their needs? What are the problems that we are trying to solve? Imagine trying to build a visualisation tool for an e-commerce product catalogue for a store that has 100,000 items but you have nervous first-time visitors who would be overwhelmed by a complex display. 

This is very different from the challenge you have to build a tool for scientists that use a research tool every day, and therefore can benefit from a compact display with many items. […] I see great opportunities for web searching, or for travel guides [for example]. There are many opportunities for successful applications [in the future.

* We thank Ben Shneiderman for allowing us to use her photograph and for the correction of the original transcription of the interview.

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