Thursday, February 07, 2008

Visualization is easy - Interactivity is difficult

After having seen a lot of amazing commercials and trailers of TV, and after having seen amazing visualizations on the web of complex information and data, I think it is fair to say that designing interactivity is difficult in relation to visualization. In a way it is the shift from the producer-consumer model to the interactivity model that makes the difficulty. I am constantly impressed by highly advanced visualizations developed and made possible with computer technology. At the same time, the interactivity in our daily lives with simple artifacts like remote controls, electronic products, cell phones, etc, still make many of us unhappy. Everybody complains about the design of the TV remote control. Why is it so difficult to design a remote that is easy to use, beautiful to look at, and that fits into our home environments. The answer can not be that no one is trying to design them right, or that we do not have the right technology. The answer is that interactivity is extremely difficult. It is much easier to develop an amazing CG environment for a Sci-Fi movie...than to develop a simple and elegant remote control...or....


Justin Donaldson said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Justin Donaldson said...

Hi Erik,

I agree with you completely on visualization vs. interaction. Designing for interactive visualization involves a far greater understanding of the nature of the information, among other things. You have to think about every possible way the interface can respond to an interaction, while still presenting intelligible, well laid out information. Many times in interactive visualizations you must deal with situations where the information, the organization of the information, and the nature of the interaction are somewhat foreign to your audience. Developing a successful interactive system always involves a deep understanding of the constraints of both the computer system as well as our own cognitive abilities.

Importantly, you must deal with important aspects of time, both in the interaction dynamics and responsiveness of the interface. Responsiveness issues require a fairly intimate understanding of the underlying computer architecture... how to take "shortcuts" with processing, layout, and interaction routines in order to maximize speed. Interaction dynamics issues require an understanding of cognition and aesthetics. In short, interfaces can also become "too" responsive for a human to understand and interact with easily. Often times adding in some sort of interpolation between states (minimizing a window to the taskbar for instance), with a delay apropos of the display size and interpolation distance, can markedly help people understand how the visualization is changing, and perhaps hint at how they can interact with it further.

Erik Stolterman said...

Hi Justin,

I could not have explained it better myself! I fully agree and you made a great case for my post and argument! Thanks!!! What is puzzling to me though, is that this is not really recognized by people neither in interaction design or in visualization design?!

Justin Donaldson said...

I think clever interactive visualization is in a bit of a no man's land for industry. Software engineers often look down at 'flashy' visualizations because they break many of the software-semantic associations that have been established (interactive flash visualizations can't be crawled and indexed by Google, for instance). Also, visualizations often are impossible for people with vision impairments to use.

On the academic end, 'quantifying' the quality of an interactive visualization is incredibly hard, especially in a non goal-oriented setting. Furthermore, interactive visualizations often cannot be effectively 'paper prototyped' or implemented beforehand as a crude physical approximation. This is because usually the interface IS a manifestation of data, and sometimes you won't even know what the features of the data are until you use the visualization itself :)
This is in contrast to normal prototyping methods where you know beforehand what a form, or window will look like, and are more interested in navigational flow.

There are ways around all of these issues, to be sure, but as a whole they limit the potential for the domain to be a thriving design community.

Erik said...

Visualizations are non-interactive? Really? This is news to me.

Maybe if you're using a visualization as a doormat or a desktop background it is non-interactive. But if you're using visualizations FOR something... to search for some information, or to calculate a value, or to make a judgement... you are certainly moving your eyes and your head, you are probably using your fingertips if not the rest of your body.

Visualizations are not absorbed, passively, they are explored interactively, even ones that seem like they're standing still

Of course, everyone thinks their field is harder, more important, more interesting than every other. :)

Erik Stolterman said...

Hi Erik

Thanks for your comment. Of course visualizations are interactive in the sense you describe, but they are not interactive in the sense that they have a dynamic changing behavior that can can be controlled by the "user". I agree that there is no distinct line that separates the two, but there are differences and I still believe interactivity is more difficult to design :-)


Erik said...

they are not interactive in the sense that they have a dynamic changing behavior that can can be controlled by the "user"

Doesn't the behavior of a "static" visualization change when you run your finger across it? Doesn't the behavior of a book change when you underline a sentence?

What it seems like you are suggesting is that there is no interaction as long as there is nothing moving on the screen. But I think this comes from a very old notion of cognition where we consider the human to be an input/output machine like the computer is. According to this view, sensation, perception, and action happen in stages in response to input from the world. So, if the world isn't moving, of course the human is just waiting, or at most it's doing "processing" rather than "interaction".

But there are newer ways of looking at cognition, ways which I think can be instructive for design. Alva Noe (Action in Perception, 2004, MIT Press) says "Perception is not something that happens to use, or in us. It is something we do.... The world makes itself available to the perceiver through physical movement and interaction."

And if you design assuming that the user is in stasis, or is merely "processing" as long as your designed artifact isn't moving, you prevent yourself from being able to design the interactivity that happens with a "static" object.

(The other) Erik

Erik Stolterman said...

Hi again Erik

Thanks for your comments. I fully understand your position and I have no problem with it. Of course people interact with "static" objects and that the relationship can be complex and rich. When I write about interactivity I mean situations where there is a person interacting with an artifact that is not "static" but "dynamic", and my point is that there is a radical difference between the two forms of artifacts when it comes to design.


adjwilli said...

This is a little off topic with current comments, but I think the problem with most TV remotes isn't the remote itself but the TV interface as a system.

I think the one example of nicely designed remote is the Apple remote. Part of it's power is that it uses Front Row which is much more simple and elegant than most TV interfaces. Granted it doesn't control the television itself, but once you turn the TV on and select the Apple TV or other computer you display, who needs that functionality any ways?

Uday Gajendar said...

I get what you're saying but I would be very careful about making judgment that one kind of design activity or problem solving is easier or harder than another--that depends upon the skillset, knowledge, and experience of the designer, I think.

Instead, it's more accurate (and less likely to offend or patronize) to say that designing for interaction involves a different (and perhaps more complex, intricate) set of considerations the designer must be aware of, than say designing for visualization. Visualizing data (a la Tufte, Wurman, Maeda) has its own complex set of problems and issues, of self-editing content, building a narrative, illustrative appeal, symbolic language creation, iconography for cross-cultural audiences, etc.

CG artists creating "sci-fi" environments tackle entirely different kinds of problems, of enabling digital realism that supports the movie director's vision, while commanding various toolkits, shaders, modelers, etc. Which is darn near rocket science for many folks who don't know CG skills!

:-) Just a thought...

Erik Stolterman said...

Hi Uday

Thanks for your comments, and of course I intentionally used the words "easy" and "difficult" :-) It was meant to start some discussion. I agree with you that each has its own difficulties and require similar levels of competence, however, my argument is more based on the outcomes. It seems as if visualization design is much more successful than interaction design. And that can either be a result of lack of competence or that the task is more difficult (or that we measure success in different ways). So, in the end I do believe that interaction is more complex and, as you wrote, "involves a different (and perhaps more complex, intricate) set of considerations"

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