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By Gerd Waloszek, SAP AG, SAP User Experience – Updated September 2, 2003
This review takes a personal look at Ben Shneiderman's book Leonardo's Laptop.
Ben Shneiderman's contributions to the user interface design field are numerous and diverse, such as hypertext systems, direct manipulation (a term that was coined by him), information visualization (starfield display, treemap, visible human, and many more...), and the design of large information-abundant Websites.
Shneiderman is the author of several books. He presents his vision of the future in his October 2002 book Leonardo's Laptop: Human Needs and the New Computing Technologies.
What happens if Ben Shneiderman, one of the most respected persons in the user interface design field, delineates his vision of the future of computing in a book? Will the book describe a technical utopia or will it be a manifesto of the doable? If you know Shneiderman at least a little, you will surely choose the second option. You are right – his vision is about a future that is tangible, not speculative.
Shneiderman's new book Leonardo's Laptop is, however, not a Designing the User Interface – Part 2. It is a totally different book with a target audience far beyond the user interface design community. This book is highly political and societal because it deals with the role that computers and information technology play for people – now and more so in the future. He calls for a change from the old computing that is about technology and what computer can do to the new computing that is about people and what they can do using technology.
Shneiderman uses Leonardo da Vinci as an inspirational aid and central thread for his book. He does so for several reasons. Firstly, Leonardo's ideas have been inspirational for Shneiderman and his vision of the future. Secondly, Leonardo was an outstanding person that combined, art, design, and science in one person. He lived in the Renaissance, an era that introduced revolutionary changes to the way humans viewed the world and acted in it. Many authors put these changes on a level with the changes that information technology brings to mankind today. Each chapter closes with a Skeptic's Corner, where Shneiderman deals with negative consequences and resistance to his proposals.
One step towards a computing that supports people is "universal usability," that is, access to information and communication services for everyone. Universal access or usability has become a new paradigm for the UI community that meanwhile has its own conference (ACM Conference on Universal Usability, CUU2003 – guess who is the keynote speaker...). In the beginning of his book, Shneiderman introduces this concept because it provides the basis for his vision of the new computing, the goals of which he characterizes thereafter.
Throughout his book, Shneiderman uses the activities and relationships table (ART) as an inspirational tool. While he employs a number of variations of the ART, there are basic dimensions and categories:
He identifies four stages of activities:
These are complemented by four circles of relationships:
Activities describe characteristic steps in a "creative" process (in the sense that "something" is created). Relationships correspond to different levels of typical "networks" that people are embedded in. Both dimensions combined form a 4-by-4 matrix that opens up a two-dimensional space of "design options," which correspond to prototypical social and activity settings of people. It helps to assign existing software applications to certain settings and see, which human needs are already addressed. Empty cells, on the other hand, stimulate ideas for new applications in the spirit of the new people-oriented computing.
In the subsequent chapters, Shneiderman delineates how the goal of universal usability can be achieved in different social areas, such as education (e-learning), commerce (e-business), medicine (e-healthcare), and politics (e-government); here he uses the ART as an inspirational tool. This is the part of his book that leads me to call it a political book. Shneiderman's focus is not on technical dreams, it is on doable societal and political visions of technology use. A lot of of Shneiderman's proposals are technically feasible today and most UI people will nod their heads when reading them. The challenge is, however, to change the thinking of technicians, business people, decision makers, politicians, and, of course, people like you and me, in order to put these innovative ideas into practice. This may become a long and thorny road to go for Shneiderman and the supporters of his vision – especially if it is to be extended beyond the USA and the Western industrial nations to the whole world.
I would like to present two topics in more detail that Shneiderman addresses at the end of his book: creativity, and the balance of power between computers and people – or between "automate" and "augment," as Michael Schrage from MIT MediaLab put it at the CHI 2003 conference.
Creativity comes in many flavors, such as everyday creativity, evolutionary creativity that refines and applies existing ideas, and revolutionary creativity that changes the way people think and live. Shneiderman focuses on evolutionary creativity because it offers the perspective of developing mega-creativity: "enable more people to be more creative more of the time." He considers three perspectives on creativity, inspirational, structural, and situational, each of which leads to different requirements for supporting software tools. He promotes the situational perspective developed by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi because it emphasizes the communication (including consultation), collaboration, and dissemination aspects of creative work – aspects that are well suited to be supported by Web-based collaborative applications.
Shneiderman integrates the different perspectives by proposing eight tasks as elements of creative processes; they correspond nicely to different activity stages in the ART (see table below). While Shneiderman has done much research on visualization tools, in his book he focuses on tools supporting consultations, including tools for mega-consultations with hundreds or even thousands of people. Has Shneiderman demystified the "mechanics" of creativity with his model and proposals for new tools? The future will tell. Even though I favor an inspirationalist perspective on creativity and have my problems with "democratic" design decisions (as many artists probably would also have), I am convinced that support tools in Shneiderman's spirit will boost creativity in many areas, such as science, industry, business, and administration.
|Searching||Search and browse digital libraries||Collect|
|Visualizing||Visualize data and processes|
|Consulting||Consult with peers and mentors||Relate|
|Thinking||Think by free association||Create|
|Composing||Compose artifacts and performances|
|Reviewing||Review and replay session histories|
Table: Primary relationships of four activities and eight tasks (from book)
In the last chapter of his book, Shneiderman turns to the relation between computers and humans. Human-like robots that replace humans have inspired human fantasy since Antiquity; Artificial Intelligence and Emotional Computing are newer versions of this notion. Authors, such as Ray Kurzweil and Hans Moravec, even claim that in a few decades computers will be superior to humans and "take control." Shneiderman opposes these ideas and stresses the notion of empowering people instead of replacing them. Above, I cited the "augment vs. automate" issue. In several public disputes with Pattie Maes, Ben Sheiderman took the "direct manipulation position." He insisted on putting the user in control and opposed to intelligent agent systems that automatically perform tasks. But in his book he also concedes that the range of automation in our environment will expand with technological progress. Therefore, he argues that the issue is not, whether tasks are automated – the issue is, whether users can understand and control what is happening and that technology serves their needs. Last but no least, Shneiderman suggests that low or no technology may also be a possible alternative to technology, the costs of which outweigh its benefits.
To sum up, this is not a book on user interface design. It is a book that reflects the role of computers and technology in society, much in the vein of Thomas Landauer's The Trouble with Computers, or Clifford Stoll's High Tech Heretic. Contrary to these two books, however, Shneiderman's book presents an optimistic vision of the use of computing technology and conceptualizes a "new computing" that empowers people and supports "what people want to do." Who should read it? Everyone who cares about mankind, technology, and the future.
Figure: Markus Latzina (left) from SAP's Usability Engineering Center meets author Ben Shneiderman (right) at the HCII 2003 Conference in Crete