In recent years there has been some exciting work going on in universities and research centres around the world to develop new ways to convey complex information onto a single screen.
Presenting data visually is hadly new. Staff in the control rooms of power stations have been using visual representations of electricity generation and distribution for years.
Oil refineries and chemical plants rely on visual displays to keep tabs on of production. Railway signal boxes and air traffic control systems critically rely on models of the real world to keep the railways safe.
Imagine for a moment that you could select the characteristics of your new boss by adjusting three slider bars with your computer mouse – such as humour, ability, generosity and approachability. Wouldn’t that be great!
... the user can interact and even do original research using the systems provided
You will now find the idea being applied on the web. Take for example Christopher Williamson's Boulder County Dynamic Homefinder. This enables the homebuyer to select the perfect house from an estate agent’s database of available property.
By setting slider bars for distance to your workplace, the cost of the property, the number of bedrooms, the year built - it will display all the locations of matching properties on a map of the area. One neat graphic allows the user to simply access information embedded in a large database.
Pages and pages of data are effectively compressed into a single screen – isolating just the subset of information the user needs to know.
Ben Schneiderman* a professor and founder of the Human-Computer Interaction Laboratory, at the University of Maryland is one of the pioneers of visualisation. His department has developed, zoomable interfaces that can give an overview of a large project but also allow you to zoom into any part and see the finest detail.
The department has also invented fisheye menus, treemaps and much more. We are already familiar with virtual museums, timelines, 360 degree panoramas, 3D maps, web cams, Flash animation and virtual tours. The repertoire for the communicator to convey complex ideas visually is growing all the time.
The use of imagery in this way cannot be done on paper, and gives added reason to publish on the web. The user can even be enabled to carry out original research using the systems and data provided.
It also means that words are not always the sharpest tool in the box!
*Further reading: 'Leonardo's Laptop – Human needs and the new computing technologies' a book written by Ben Schneiderman. Examples of visualisation are included in our advanced web content course.