Computer lab simplifies tasks


November 27, 1993|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,Staff Writer

COLLEGE PARK -- Ben Shneiderman thinks the world could be a better place -- "a little warmer, a little wiser, a little safer" -- if only people and their computers got along better. Seeing that they do is his job.

Dr. Shneiderman is head of the University of Maryland's Human-Computer Interaction Laboratory in College Park, a 10-year-old effort to bring together the disciplines of computer science, library science and psychology to make computers more usable. It's not one of UM's more high-profile programs, but within the computer field the lab has gained a national reputation one the best places to go if you want to meet a friendly interface.

When Library of Congress officials went looking for a computer program that would let researchers' ferret out information easily, they turned to the UM lab to evaluate their work. Now the library's users can navigate their way through vast canyons of information with the touch of a finger on a computer screen.

When Denro Inc., a Gaithersburg-based manufacturer of air traffic control and range control equipment, needed an independent set of eyes to evaluate its new touch-screen interface in 1991, Dr. Shneiderman and his team did the vetting.

"They were instrumental in having us make it consistent throughout," said Bill Manning, Denro's director of research and development. "We were kind of new at the time and it was very, very helpful."

Paul Vinikoor, a regional manager with the university's Technology Extension Service, said the Human-Computer Interaction Laboratory is a useful resource for Maryland companies.

"When companies come to me looking for that expertise, I know where to go," said Mr. Vinikoor, adding that Dr. Shneiderman has done "amazing things" for his business clients.

Maryle Ashley, a software development manager for the Library of Congress, said the simplified program the UM lab helped develop has freed librarians to do serious research work rather than constantly having to explain routine computer functions.

She described the UM team's work with the library as a positive experience that helped enable her staff to handle problems. "Ben himself is very special in that he sees the positives. He sees the can-do side," Ms. Ashley said. "Whenever they gave criticism, first they would tell you the good things."

Dr. Shneiderman, a professor of computer science, said the lab was born out of his long-standing interest in what he calls "Software Psychology," the title of his 1980 book.

With the encouragement of Azriel Rosenfeld, director of UM's Center for Automation Research, Dr. Shneiderman rounded up like-minded people in the psychology and library sciences departments departments to create a multidisciplinary lab as part of the automation center.

A small, smiling man with a beard worthy of a Civil War general, Dr. Shneiderman has been battling such user-hostile dragons as the DOS and Unix operating systems ever since. To him, such dTC complex systems are barriers that scare people away from computers and retard the development of useful technologies.

"Why don't we have on-line medical records?" he asked. "Anywhere in the world you can get your airline booking on screen in 15 seconds."

Dr. Shneiderman said that more "human-centered" interfaces could drastically expand the use of technology in education, medicine and care of the elderly.

Kent L. Norman, a psychology professor who has worked closely with Dr. Shneiderman since the lab's creation, said he and his associates try to look at computer interfaces is terms of "what does the human need" rather than "what does the computer need."

Dr. Norman said his cognitive psychology students generally coax clients to describe what they would like to see in a program and how they would like it to be organized. Then his students design a "map" of the desired functions and work with their colleagues from the computer science area to write the programs.

The results of cross-disciplinary cooperation could be seen in the laboratory's computer-lined work area.

Research scientist Catherine Plaisant pointed to a "smart house" control center program designed for Custom Command Systems Inc. of College Park. Touching a screen, she dragged the minute and hour hands to the proper times to turn an appliance on and off.

If the UM lab has a bias, it's in favor of touch-screen technology.

"Using a mouse is difficult," especially for older people and children, Ms. Plaisant said.

Dr. Shneiderman is a skeptic when it comes to another technology, operating computers for voice commands. "I do not think the future is talking to your computers," he said. "When you talk, you can't think at the same time."

Instead, he foresees increased use of three-dimensional displays, animation, high-resolution images and, most of all, larger display screens. Visual interfaces will become more sophisticated than the icon-based displays now standard in Macintosh and Windows programs, he said.

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