Ben Shneiderman on HCIR

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Last week I was in DC at the HCIR 2009 workshop organized by Bill Kules, Daniel Tunkelang, and Ryen White. This was the third workshop in the series, and by far the biggest and most diverse in terms of attendees. Proceedings are available online. Daniel and Max Wilson have already given pretty good coverage to what happened at the workshop, so I will focus on my impressions, starting with Ben Shneiderman‘s keynote.

Ben Shneiderman can be seen as one of the fore-fathers of HCIR given his work on interactive information visualization and hypertext. The dynamic slider (direct manipulation) work not only popularized key interaction techniques, but also offered a glimpse into the possibilities of interactive exploration of structured data. His work on hypertext inspired a generation of hypertext systems that ultimately informed the design of the World Wide Web. In short, Ben is a pioneer in HCI and and in interactive IR as well. Well, seeing the HCI field evolve over 25 years, and IR over the last 40, Ben is tired of it. Time to move on! His call is for Human-Social interaction (as mediated by the computer, I assume).

He made some interesting observations about information seeking interfaces, contrasting web search (i.e., precision-oriented, known-item search, AKA, Google search) with other kinds of information seeking. For example, Google search typically operates on the time scale of minutes, while other kinds of information needs may take days, weeks, or months to satisfy. He also identified what he called “special cases” of search (which to me are mostly examples of exploratory search in different domains):

  • Completeness: legal, patent, medical information needs
  • Absence: Proving that something does not exist (or at least cannot be found)
  • Outliers: finding unexpected connections
  • Bridging: Identifying documents that bridge disciplines

Ben also mentioned the need to avoid confirmation bias, which I think can be achieved both by training people and by providing tools that offer a diversity of results, rather that retrieving many instances of the same thing, as is common with today’s web search engines. Ben also made his often-heard call to arms, to strive for positive impact on society (and on the world). While it seems unlikely that research on information seeking interfaces with having significant impact on Social-with-a-capital-S issues, I chose to interpret his “Human-Social interaction” meme as endorsement of the collaborative exploratory search work Jeremy Pickens and I have been doing.

He concluded with a contrast between the science of the nature and that of the man-made world by comparing various methodological aspects of doing research in the physical and biological sciences with those involving human behavior. His call was for a more holistic, less reductionist, approach to studying human behavior, although he stressed that hypothesis testing, predictive theories, and replication were hallmarks of the scientific method that applied equally to physics and to studies of HCI. Ben had published an article on this topic that was not without controversy.

Overall, it was an enjoyable keynote, with some interesting ideas that reflect not only Ben’s original work, but his current passions as well.

Update: Ben Shneiderman’s slide deck is available on TheNoisyChannel.

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