Books & People

back Books & People Overview

Books, People


Book Reviews


Book Review: Interactive Visualization

Book | Author | Review

By Gerd Waloszek, SAP AG, Design & Frontline Apps – September 3, 2013

This review takes a personal look at Bill Ferster's book Interactive Visualization: Insight through Inquiry.



Cover of Interactive Visualization


Bill Ferster

Interactive Visualization: Insight through Inquiry

The MIT Press, 2012

ISBN-10: 0262018152, ISBN-13: 978-0262018159

Information: Information presentation



Photo of Bill FersterBill Ferster is on the faculty of the University of Virginia with a joint appointment to the Center for Technology and Teacher Education at the Curry School of Education and at the Science, Humanities, and Arts Network of Technological Initiatives (SHANTI) at the College of Arts and Sciences.
(based on biography on MIT Press page)




Bill Ferster is the creator and mastermind behind VisualEyes, a Web-based authoring tool written in Adobe Flash and developed at the University of Virginia by the Sciences, Humanities & Arts Network of Technological Initiatives (SHANTI). According to the VisualEyes Website, this tool allows you "to weave images, maps, charts, video, and data into highly interactive and compelling dynamic visualizations." Furthermore, "VisualEyes enables scholars to present selected primary source materials and research findings while encouraging active inquiry and hands-on learning among general and targeted audiences. It communicates through the use of dynamic displays – or 'visualizations' – that organize and present meaningful information in both traditional and multimedia formats, such as audio-video, animation, charts, maps, data, and interactive timelines. The effective use of the visualizations can reveal and illuminate relationships between multiple kinds of information across time and space far more effectively than words alone."

VisualEyes Website

Figure 1: The VisualEyes Website

At the University of Virginia, Ferster and his colleagues use VisualEyes in visualization seminars that are based on the project-based learning approach and carried out with students in the course of a semester. But the use of VisualEyes is not restricted to student projects – it is freely available for academic and non-profit use via the VisualEyes Website. In his book Interactive Visualization: Insight through Inquiry, Ferster offers the experiences and insights gained in developing VisualEyes and in using it in teachings to a wider audience. But note that while VisualEyes plays a prominent role in Ferster's book, it is not a handbook or tutorial for VisualEyes – you can download a reference and a tutorial from the VisualEyes Website. Instead, the book offers an easy-to-read introduction to the growing field of visualization or, to be more precise, of information visualization. I have reviewed quite a few books about this topic in the past, and would like to make the difference to scientific visualization clear here once again:

  • Scientific visualization is based on data having a correspondence to physical space (typically, it is closely related to mathematical models) such as geophysical data
  • Information visualization refers to abstract data such as demographic or economic data that typically has no correspondence to physical space.

Ferster added the word "interactive" to the term "visualization" in the title of his book to make clear that it focuses on visualizations that are created by computers. In contrast to their printed counterparts, these have the potential to be dynamic and to be used interactively and in explorative ways, such as visualizations created with the above-mentioned VisualEyes tool. I would like to close my introduction to the book with two citations that describe what the author means by "interactive visualizations" and their effective application:

  • "Interactive visualization is the process of letting primary sources of information communicate directly with a viewer to support inquiry in a visual, compelling, and interactive manner."
  • "Creating a successful visualization involves the marshaling of effective data sources to answer meaningful questions using interactive methods that exhibit appealing aesthetic design and strong usability."

Audience and Purpose of the Book

Like Riccardo Mazza's book Introduction to Information Visualization (review), Ferster's book serves primarily as a textbook for students. Ferster himself writes explicitly that it "is designed for undergraduate and graduate students and working designers who want to explore the guiding principles behind developing compelling interactive data-driven visualizations." We can therefore summarize that Interactive Visualization is a book for all those beginners who want to read a structured approach to the topic of information visualization. According to Ferster, his book does not require any prior programming, design, or statistical experience. It therefore provides tutorials on the basics of the Internet, the use of spreadsheets, statistics, data structuring, and more. This additional knowledge is particularly useful when working with VisualEyes. In his compelling preface, Ben Shneiderman focuses on humanities scholars and, upon closer look, it is evident this is Ferster's primary audience. Yet I do not think that students of natural sciences need an introduction to spreadsheets or to the Internet in such a book...

When I say "structured approach," I refer to the ASSERT model developed by Ferster. It is a recurring theme throughout his book, which he himself says views the topic of visualization "through the lens of the ASSERT model." The model consists of the following six components:

  • Ask a question
  • Search for evidence to answer a question
  • Structure that information to answer the question
  • Envision ways to answer the question using the data
  • Represent the data in a compelling visualization
  • Tell a meaningful story

Ferster points out that "this is not a 'how to' book on creating interactive visualizations but offers guidance to some of the important concepts required to build projects using the tools appropriate to each project, its designer, and the final audience." His presumes "that detailed descriptions of tools and techniques will become outdated almost as soon as they are written," and adds "But the principles of inquiry, design, and usability have long traditions that are informative when viewed from a more abstract level. This book attempts to describe concrete projects and ideas from that level, to offer the reader insight into the process operating in all visualization projects, regardless of how they are ultimately realized."

Overview of the Book

In the following, I offer a brief overview of the book. For a more detailed overview, please refer to the tabular overview that I have provided in the appendix.


Ben Shneiderman's preface sets the stage for the book, discussing the role of visualizations in society and how Fester's book fits into the growing literature on visual analytics. It concludes with the appeal "There's much work to be done. Let's do it!" Ferster's introduction explains the motivation for his book, its purpose and intended audience, and what it covers. Section I provides a good introduction to the topic, particularly its history, aa well as a concise overview of models of information visualization, including Ferster's own ASSERT model.

The Core of the Book

Section II is the "core" of the book. It guides readers through the six steps of the ASSERT model, which serves as the backbone of the book. Ferster devotes a chapter to each step, taking readers on a different journey each time. Here are some examples of where the journeys will take readers:

  • Ask a question: Creative problem solving techniques, brainstorming, mind and concept mapping
  • Search for information: Libraries and online resources
  • Structure the information: Organizing information (LATCH model), quantitative and qualitative data, tools for structuring and cleansing data
  • Envision the answer: Tufte's principles of analytic design, quantitative and qualitative analysis, factor matrix analysis
  • Represent the visualization: Interaction, perception, cognition, usability, fun, aesthetics, spatial arrangement, the "fourth" dimension, charts, maps, animation, queries, visualization tools
  • Tell a story using data: Schemas, narrative structure, misleading representations and validity threats, design tensions

By the way, the fact that Interactive Visualization is structured according to the steps of the ASSET model becomes quite evident when you look at the overview table in the appendix.

Readers with some knowledge of information visualization may perhaps be somewhat disappointed that the representational aspect (which in my mind is "at the heart" of information visualization) is covered in just one of the six chapters – and that parts of this chapter comprise a "tour de force" through science and art, thus leaving even less space for discussing visual representations. But be assured that visual representations appear throughout the book in appropriate contexts.


In his preface, Ferster writes of a third section that is packed with tutorials, but this section is not really listed as such in the book's table of contents. In my overview tabular overview in the appendix, I therefore took the liberty of adding a section title. This third section is comprised of fast track tutorials for beginners to the essentials of the Internet, statistics, spreadsheets, databases and XML, and accessibility. All tutorials focus on potential applications to visualizations, particularly using VisualEyes. Although I am not a beginner, I found a lot of useful information in this section, too. But do not expect to become an expert in statistics or databases after reading the respective tutorials – they merely outline the basic concepts. Note that the spreadsheet chapter also briefly describes how to use descriptive and inferential statistics in Microsoft Excel that are described in the statistics tutorial.

Chapters 8 and 14 frame this section by presenting a case study of a visualization seminar (The University of Virginia's First Library) and by describing the VisualEyes authoring tool (see below for a short note and the appendix for references). Chapter 9, The Internet, includes a brief introduction to Adobe Flash, which provides the technical basis for VisualEyes.

Further Remarks

In sections I and II, each chapter closes with a concise summary. Perhaps it is a good idea to read these summaries before you read the chapter themselves (and again afterwards).

In Further Reading, Ferster suggests a couple of books for those readers who want to learn more, but please note that these suggestions are not meant as an exhaustive list of references. For a more comprehensive literature list (namely the literature on which Ferster based his book), see the book's references. See also the references in the appendix for further books about information visualization.

Finally, I should mention that the book is full of of illustrations (as should be the case for a book about visualization). Regrettably, it does not offer a list of those illustrations, which would certainly help those interested to find out more about them.

A Few Comments

Numerous indicators led me to conclude that Ferster's book primarily targets students. One indicator, of course, was the many citations of authors and sources in the book. Another was that throughout the book, you will find models of various types, such as scientific models for information visualization, Norman's action cycle, a taxonomy of interaction, the Gestalt laws, Norman's factors to improve usability problems, Jordan's factors to deliver a pleasurable user experience, Shank's archetype schemas, Shneiderman's visualization mantra, and Murray's essential qualities of digital environments. The author also includes models and techniques developed by practitioners, such as Duarte's hypothetical personas describing the core characteristics of an audience, strategies for generating questions (three-part query, the journalist's five Ws (and an H), K-W-L), brainstorming, mind and concept mapping, Wurman's LATCH model, Tufte's six fundamental principles of analytic design, Few's observations about how people collect and process visual information, Gee's learning principles for video games, Duarte's dimensions for spatial arrangement, and Wurman's five rules for effectively communicating information. I've probably forgotten to include a model or two in these lists, and I cannot guarantee that my separation into the two model groups is correct. I hope you did not get dizzy reading my long model lists... By the way, Ferster's book is also a good resource for online resources (see pages 69-74, for example) and for various methods and tools.

I find the book well written and easy to understand, and its content presented in a systematic way. While I personally like Ferster's concise textbook style, other readers may prefer a more colloquial writing style.

Finally, I have to admit that I was somewhat surprised to see "the science of usability" covered on just one page (apart from some remarks about user-centered design) and consist mostly of Norman's eight factors to improve usability. Condensing the topic like this may indeed be a good idea when space is limited, but the reduction here is indeed a bit extreme for those readers with a background in the field. As a consolation for like-minded prospective readers, I’d like to point out that usability-related information appears in many other places in the book, for example where visual perception and cognition are discussed.


As Bill Ferster writes, the design field is becoming more and more interested in information visualization, particularly since computers are involved, making it easy to interact dynamically with data. The spread of the Internet has accelerated this trend, because tools and data are offered all over the Internet, allowing virtually everyone to explore this freely available data. Nevertheless, at least some basic knowledge about data structures, visual representations, and knowledge of tools like spreadsheets is needed to be successful here. Introductions like Ferster's book, Interactive Visualization, attempt to close this gap and teach students, designers, and interested parties the fundamentals of information visualization. While Ferster's book is not the first introduction to this topic, its unique approach makes it a welcome addition to what is already available on the market. Riccardo Mazza's book, Introduction to Information Visualization (review), for example, likewise addresses students, but it follows a more conventional approach that is grounded in a strong connection between data structures and their visual representations. Ferster's book "stands out from the crowd" because it is based on what I would call a "holistic approach" to information visualization, namely his ASSET model described above. It starts by asking questions and culminates in "telling a compelling story" with the visual representation created from the data.

I am too impatient for such an approach, and prefer a "data-driven" approach instead, where you start right from data having a certain structure, look for a suitable visual representation, and then implement it. This approach could be considered the "SER" section in Ferster's model, and it is closer to what the author probably would consider a "how to" approach. But, as Ferster writes in his introduction, this was not what he had in mind when he conceived his book. I therefore agree with Shneiderman that Ferster's book is more tailored to students of the humanities than to those of the natural sciences, particularly considering the tutorials, which are an important ingredient of the book.

All in all, Ferster's book, Interactive Visualization, gives interested readers the chance to learn more about information visualization. I therefore particularly recommend the book to those who want to learn about the entire interactive visualization process. The book is an excellent way to learning more about the VisualEyes tool, to find out about existing visualization projects (see the references in the appendix), and to create your own. I myself visited the VisualEyes Website and had a look at some of the projects. I also started a project of my own, trying to visualize my conference visits during my time at SAP. If time permits, I will report on my experiences in a forthcoming Design Tidbit or UI Design Blink.

Additional Comment

A colleague who is an expert in cognitive load theory recently suggested that Ferster may have simplified the redundancy principle too much when he writes, "People learn better when the same information is represented in multiple formats (p.31)." She sent me the following citation from John Sweller (2005), one of the "fathers" of cognitive load theory:

  • "The redundancy effect implies that it should be prevented to offer multiple sources of information that simply reiterate the same information in a different form, when one information source is sufficient for understanding. Having to integrate the redundant information induces unnecessary memory load."

Thus, redundant information may be helpful in certain cases, but be detrimental in others because it increases cognitive load.


References, Appendix

The appendix to this review contains references and a tabular overview of the book.


VisualEyes and SHIVA

VisualEyes ( was already mentioned at the beginning of the review. It is SHANTI's primary authoring tool or, at least, it was it in the past. More links to VisualEyes, its project tool, its documentation, and to projects created with this tool are provided in the references in the appendix (you can also click this link to watch a short screen-cast about VisualEyes).

SHIVA is SHANTI's new Interactive Visualization Application. According to its authors, SHIVA is intended to "make it easy to create interactive visualizations and uses the new HTML5 Web standard." This change in technology is probably due to the fact that certain popular mobile platforms do not allow the use of Adobe Flash on which VisualEyes is based. Note that all the resources used in a SHIVA project have to be made available on the Web. For more information about SHIVA, please visit the SHIVA Website at


top top