Greetings from the InfoVis conference in Columbus, Ohio! Today we heard a compelling keynote presentation by Jake Kolojejchick, Chief Scientist at Viz / General Dynamics. Jake is one of the creators of the "Command Post of the Future" system, currently in active use by the U.S. military.
Jake talked a bit about the system itself, which is geared for realtime collaboration in situations that are, to say the least, stressful and demanding. But his main messages were lessons learned during the system's design and deployment. Three points struck me as particularly interesting.
1. Jake noted that his users were extremely smart and resourceful, which ironically made testing tricky. Given simple tasks, users were too good at figuring out even hard-to-use software. To get around this, users were given extremely difficult test tasks, so that they had no extra brain energy to solve interface problems.
2. Military commanders have always loved maps. Jake speculated that this wasn't just because maps convey information clearly, but they also convey possibilities for action. A bridge almost begs to be crossed, for example. Jake then showed a slide of various visualizations of the current financial meltdown. All of these charts showed how bad things are, but none held any hint of what to do next. (Alas!) Is there a way we can create visualizations with map-like "affordances for action?"
3. The part where I really sat up and took notice was when Jake said that he viewed visualization "as a medium." This is something I've heard (and occasionally said) before, though usually in the context of artistic or social software--so at first it was a surprise to hear the same message from someone talking about a military system. The viewpoints people choose and the annotations they make on visualizations tell you a lot about what they're thinking... and apparently this is as true on the battlefield as it is on a Web 2.0 social network.
Guest blogger Martin Wattenberg is the group manager of the IBM Visual Communication Lab. He is known for several successful visualization projects such as Many Eyes, Baby Name Voyager and Shape of Song.
See also Infovis'08 Conference Coverage.