Report on Maryland Trip

Joan Winters

June 1-2, 1995, and Thereabouts

Places Visited:

During my vacation back east in May and June, I spent two days learning about computing in two other organizations. I also discussed computing with colleagues at Cornell and Princeton Universities.


Human-Computer Interaction Laboratory

On June 2, I attended the 12th Annual Symposium and Open House at the University of Maryland's Human-Computer Interaction Laboratory (HCIL). The Lab is headed by Ben Shneiderman, an early leader in software human factors. HCIL is known for its seminal research in hypertext and the error rates associated with various interfaces, e.g., JCL. The Lab involves participants from psychology, library and information services, computer science, and systems research as well as collaborators from various businesses and government agencies.

The theme of this year's Open House was "Information Abundant Interfaces." During the morning and early afternoon, current HCIL research on visual interfaces for presenting and using effectively massive amounts of information were given. Demonstrations completed the day.

Interfaces need to become comprehensible, predictable, and controllable. Topics that particularly caught my attention included ways to improve information seeking and browsing, refinement of information visualization, and specification and evaluation of interfaces. Emerging guidelines include:

This approach was used by some undergrads who brought up in a month the "Dynamic Home Finder" based on the Washington, D.C., area real estate listings. The display starts with a map of all houses for sale. As one enters restrictions, e.g., location, size, limit on lenth of commute, and cost, only those houses meeting the selection criteria continue to display. When one sees a house one's curious about, one can request its specifics. If one decides there's nothing left that's interesting, one may loosen any of the selection criteria and update the map.

The students encountered a lot of resistance to this idea. To show its power, they held a "data entering party," put in 1100 houses, and made their point. Now the application is catching on among realtors. This is one instance of the "zoomable scattergram," which seems widely applicable.

Zooming and filtering have also been found useful for dynamic exploration of data to investigate trends and identify outliers. Showing multiple levels of view at once may help maintain context. Using color and thickness to indicate characteristics also seems promising. Dense screens are powerful, but difficult to design.

Tools to evaluate interfaces like HCIL's Questionnaire for User Interaction Satisfaction (QUIS) and Automated Consistency Analysis are coming of age. Ethnographic methods and anomaly classification seem to have potential. Templates can help generate consistent interfaces.


One particularly interesting session reported on "Enhancing Selection with Color and Spatial Cues." The researcher, Ben Harper, concluded:

These text findings and the power of dense screens probably shed light on the controversy surrounding the layout of the SLAC Home Page.

Another useful session was "Spinning Your Web: WWW Interface Design Issues" by Vince Boisselle. Before designing the pages on the Broadcast Pioneers Library for his server, he reviewed the hypertext literature, finding similarities and differences between self-contained hypertext and the global connectivity of the Web. Quoting from Shneiderman, Boisselle noted:

The intrigue of hypertext is the replacement of the simple linearity of traditional written text with the opportunity for jumping to a variety of successor articles or cards...

The dual dangers are that hypertext may be inappropriate for some projects and that the design of the hypertext may be poor (for example, too many links, confusing structure)...

Differences between traditional hypertext and the Web that Boisselle emphasized include: To create a Web site, he recommended the following:

Some of the sessions are summarized on a video tape given to the attendees.These include:


The demos I attended were:

I wish I could have seen more. Getting from place to place was a problem. I have a number of short reports published recently by HCIL, too, in case anyone's interested in reading them, along with other bibliographical material.

Applied Physics Laboratory (APL)

On June 1, I visited some computing colleagues at the Applied Physics Lab. Its research is primarily funded by the US Navy and other defense programs. APL also conducts major programs for NASA.

While there, I demo'd the SLAC Web to their postmaster, Jim Hubbs; and he showed me both the APL internal and new external WWW page sets. APL has put their internal pages on one server and their ones for public consumption on another. At least some realize this does not meet the needs of collaborators who are not on-site, but it's working more or less so far. Communications' Greg Hollingsworth, to whom Ed Hart introduced me, led in prototyping WWW pages to prove their potential usefulness. TechPubs' Lucinda Halbrook (who was unfortunately not there) has been working to create polished, public ones.

Another colleague, Tony Waters, gave me a short demo of the Work Breakdown Structure part of a Funding, Planning, and Budgeting client/server GUI application being developed by APL with Price Waterhouse. It's for the central budget office and traces the money flavors and flow. They're using PowerBuilder on MS/Windows (just recently available on Macs, too) to develop an application that communicates with an Oracle data base. Tony is quite happy with PowerBuilder and finds Oracle to have more functionality and be more intuitive to use than Nomad, the 4GL database query language they previously used to access Rdb. To layout their GUI screens, they are using an in-house standards document that applies to both MS/Windows and Macintosh environments. (Whether someone has a PC or a Mac depends on the particular APL group's culture. Both kinds are common at the Lab.)

Tony is also in charge of a committee to obtain a Document Information Retrieval and Indexing System (DIRIS) to hold, index, retrieve, and present compound documents (e.g., a Word document with imbedded spreadsheet). A DIRIS Web server may be used to generate and serve HTML-format output on the fly. I obtained some information about APL's requirements as well as a fancy, home-brew, KWOC application they have been using that includes an extensive stop word list, synonym processing, and "go" list (where extra keywords are "attached" to the titles for indexing). I expect the complete requirements, name of DIRIS product selected, costs, etc., soon.

Other Information

When talking with other colleagues during my vacation, I learned the following:
  1. Melinda Varian at Princeton has written "Using ADSM to Back Up Your Workstation or Server." Princeton is now using that product to back up more than 500 workstations and servers running six operating systems including Windows, MacOS, SunOS, and AIX. The backup server is a 3090 running VM.

  2. Wendy Alberg and Paul Zarnowski at Cornell have written "How to Install EZ-Backup on Macintosh Computers." EZ-Backup is Cornell's easy-to-use client interface to ADSM, part of a larger set of EZ client applications for users. The backup server is an RS/6000 41T running AIX 3.2.5 and ADSM server code. The document includes sections on ADSM error messages, using cron, disaster recovery planning, and a FAQ.

  3. Ed Hart has found C++ Strategies and Tactics by Dr. John H. Carson particularly useful.

  4. HCIL developed the graphical Maryland Widget Library(TM), designed to run in something called the Galaxy Application Environment. This library won the 1994 Information Science Invention of the Year from the University of Maryland and is now being marketed by Maryland Widgets, LLC.

  5. Rich Gallagher, recently of ANSYS and editor of the new book, Computer Visualization: Graphics Techniques for Engineering and Scientific Analysis (CRC/Solomon PRess), is offering a two-day seminar on "Developing Visualization Software Applications."

  6. Oracle has a confusing notation: TO_CHAR('HH:MM:SS') does not mean hours:minutes:seconds but rather hours:months:seconds! This caused a colleague quite a bit of time debugging. To get hours:minutes:seconds, code: TO_CHAR('HH:MI:SS').

  7. There is little use of OS/2 at APL or Princeton.

I have copies of the two ADSM manuals in my office.

SLAC, August 7, 1995