The River Beyond the Rapids:
Responsive Services for
Responsible Users

Ben Shneiderman
University of Maryland


Providing responsive services to all members of our society will require new corporate alliances that put the users and their needs ahead of the pursuit of new technology. Responsive systems are the boats on which responsible users will travel to their work, social communities, and entertainment. With responsive systems users can take responsibility for what they promise to do and derive satisfaction from accomplishing their tasks. The keys to user responsibility are comprehensible, predictable, and controllable interfaces.


For the past half century, the bold, young pioneers of the computer industry have courageously explored the raging rapids of new technology. These hardy adventurers risked everything and launched a remarkable industry that is the admiration of much of the developed world. However, their infatuation with taking yet another ego trip through the white water of beyond-the-edge technology no longer serves the rest of us very well. The river of users has widened and the small, agile kayaks are inappropriate to the needs of large-scale commerce and growing electronic communities of the 21st century. The intense demands for what I call responsive service mean that new design philosophies are needed. Piloting barges and ferry boats for large numbers of passengers may not be as much of a thrill as the solo ride through the rapids, but the potential profits for successful entrepreneurs should be alluring. The transition from risky adventures to predictable, reliable, and even comfortable computing services will also require a new attitude.

Librarians, information intermediaries, technical writers, training directors, user ombudspersons, and help desk workers have promoted good service and advocated for the needs of users in many organizations; now they are beginning to step forward and take a more active role in improving software designs.

It will no longer be acceptable to have incompatible hardware standards, error-prone software, lost or corrupted data, unnecessarily complex interfaces, and chaotic screen designs. The technical challenges are great if we are to engineer responsive services that are matched to users' needs, accessible to diverse communities, require minimal training, provide generous help and support, well-integrated with existing manual and automated services, and are reliable, safe, secure, and available. Universal access to communications, information, and entertainment is easy to say but difficult to deliver.

Corporate Alliances to Develop Responsive Services

Corporate executives will also struggle as they shift from thinking about technology partners to service partners. The current enthusiasm for alliances is limited to relationships with other technology companies, such as IBM with Apple or Silicon Graphics with Scientific Atlanta. These social innovations will emerge eventually, but they could be developed and widely used in a few years rather than a few decades if corporate executives, professional organizations, and government decision makers step forward with a bold vision.

Imagine if Apple made a partnership with the American Medical Association or Kaiser-Permanente, they might begin the long process towards universal access to standard medical records. It seems tragic and almost immoral that we are a half century into the computer age without standard medical records available by network. By comparison our phone bill, charge card, and airline reservation records are in far better state than our medical histories. Airline reservations are available in seconds anywhere on the planet, even crossing systems of competing companies and hostile nations.

In this era of health care reform wouldn't it make sense to simultaneously introduce modern computerized medical record keeping. The availability of medical records would not only improve patient care and potentially lower costs, but also would have remarkable benefits to clinical researchers, epidemiologists, demographers, and many others. Building the appropriate hardware, software and networks could dramatically increase the size of the computing industry.

Improved patient care would come in direct ways by allowing physicians rapid access to patient histories in emergency rooms, clinics, and physicians offices. As patients visited specialists, sought second opinions, moved to other cities, their medical histories would be continuously available in a complete and accurate form. This is in dramatic contrast to current practice in which patient records are often little more than fire hazards, inaccessible to all but the local physician.

Imagine if IBM, the grandfather of computer companies, made an alliance with the American Association for Retired Persons to develop services for the growing elderly population. With effective user-interface design (large fonts, high contrast, comfortable pointing devices, meaningful navigational paths), senior citizens could communicate by electronic mail, obtain health, financial, and social services, and access varied entertainment. What a market that would make!

Imagine if AT&T made an alliance with the League of Women Voters or Common Cause to support civil systems that would provide access to information and communication with elected officials at the city, state, and national levels. While it's hard to guarantee that such systems would reduce the cost or size of government, the potential for improved services is irresistible. Wouldn't good government be served by electronic access to agendas for community councils or the Congressional Bill Status System? Wouldn't citizens want to send their viewpoints to elected officials? Wouldn't we all benefit from more mundane services such as on-line voter registration, pothole reporting, motor vehicle licensing, or access to police investigators to give anonymous crime-related evidence ?

Imagine if Microsoft made an alliance with the National Education Association or textbook publishers to provide networked access to instructional software and information resources. These services would support education for our children, skills training for job-seekers, and lifelong adult learning for productivity and pleasure. While many commentators celebrate the importance of multimedia to education, I believe that the new technologies (word processors, spread sheets, drawing programs, and image databases) are important because they support creative individual activities and engaging team collaborations. Students learning French could compose essays, critique each other's work, and send them to their peers in France for further comments. History students could contact an elderly participant in the D-Day invasion for a firsthand account and Political Science students could contact government officials for current policy statements.

Creative alliances between technology companies and service-oriented organizations would lead more rapidly to productive social innovations through at least these responsive services.

Resistance to these innovations is likely to come from many directions. How can we get technologists to shift their focus from faster chips to more responsive service? How can the corporate planners be convinced that they must create a broad market over several years rather than merely respond to vocal demands of the technological elite? Successful answers will require a mature vision, courageous leadership, and substantial investment.

Design Philosophy to Support Users' Responsibility

Successful interface designers have recognized the importance of user control over computer systems that are presented as comprehensible, predictable, and controllable tools. Most users appreciate the sense of accomplishment and mastery over a system that comes when they understand what they are doing. UsersUs responsibility for their actions will be fostered when they have a clear mental model of how they got to their current state in the system, what actions are possible at each state, and what will happen in response to each action. Users should be able to repeat desired sequences of actions to achieve their goals, recover from errors easily, and be able to tailor the interface to suit their changing needs.

There are extensive design guidelines books [1,2], and process-oriented guides [3,4] that can help designers create interfaces that foster user responsibility. There are also sets of brief suggestions such as the Eight Golden Rules [5]:

- Strive for consistency

- Enable frequent users to use shortcuts

- Offer informative feedback

- Design dialogs to yield closure

- Offer simple error handling

- Permit easy reversal of actions

- Support internal locus of control

- Reduce short-term memory load

Other principles such as direct manipulation have been widely applied in word processors, spreadsheets, drawing tools, and many other environments:

- Visual representation of the "world of action"

- Objects & Actions are shown

- Tap analogical reasoning

- Rapid, incremental, and reversible actions

- Replace typing with pointing/selecting

- Immediate visibility of results of actions

The benefits of direct manipulation are: control/display integration to simplify usage and conserve screen space, and less syntax to reduce error rates, speed learning and increase retention. The use of properly designed visual representations helps to make the operation more comprehensible, predictable, and controllable, thus increasing the usersUs willingness to take responsibility for their actions. Of course, there are concerns such as: the possible need for increased system resources, some actions may be cumbersome, macro techniques are still weak, history/tracing may be difficult, and visually impaired users have more difficulty.

Further design principles are emerging as our Human-Computer Interaction Laboratory and other designers explore advanced graphical user interfaces (GUIs) and visual information-seeking strategies[6,7]. The current GUIs are still quite primitive and poorly designed to take advantage of the remarkable human visual perceptual system and the increasingly large, rapid, and high-resolution computer displays. It seems increasingly archaic to see only 30-60 icons on the screen, deal with the cluttered desktop of overlapping windows, and waste time with unnecessary window housekeeping, when appealing alternatives are beginning to appear in research prototypes.

The future of user interfaces seems to be in the direction of larger, higher resolution screens, that present perceptually rich and information-abundant displays. With such designs, the worrisome flood of information can be turned into a productive river of knowledge. Our experience during the past four years has been that visual query formulation and visual display of results can be combined with the successful strategies of direct manipulation. We developed dynamic queries, starfield displays, treemaps, treebrowsers, and a variety of widgets to present, search, browse, filter, and compare rich information spaces [8,9].

The dynamic queries are animated user-controlled displays that show information in response to movements of sliders, buttons, maps, or other widgets. For example, in the HomeFinder the users see points of light on a map representing homes for sale. As they shift sliders for the price, number of bedrooms, etc. the points of light come and go within 100 milliseconds, offering a quick understanding of how many and where suitable homes are being sold. Clicking on a point of light produces a full description and, potentially, a picture of the house. The starfield display was created for the FilmFinder, which provided visual access to a database of films[9]. The films were arranged as color coded rectangles along the x-axis by the production year and along the y-axis by popularity. Recent popular films were in the upper right hand corner. Zoombars (a variant of scroll bars) enabled users to zoom-in in milliseconds on the desired region. When less than 25 films were on the screen, the film titles appeared and when the users clicked on a film's rectangle, a dialog box would appear giving full information and an image from the film.

The FilmFinder [Figure 1] tries to overcome search problems by applying dynamic queries, a starfield display, and tight coupling among components. Dynamic queries were applied by having a double box range selector to specify film length in minutes, by having buttons for ratings (G, PG, PG-13, R), large color-coded buttons for film categories (drama, action, comedy, etc.), and our novel alphasliders for film titles, actors, actresses, and directors.

The query result in the FilmFinder is continuously represented in a starfield display [Figure 1]. The FilmFinder allows users to zoom into a particular part of the time-popularity space [Figure 2]. As users zoom in the colored spots representing films grow larger, giving the impression of flying in closer to the films. The labels on the axes are also automatically updated as zooming occurs.

To obtain more information about a particular element of the query results, users click on that element, getting desired details-on-demand [Figure 3]. An information card that provides more information about attributes such as actors, actresses, director and language is displayed. In a traditional retrieval system users would obtain more information by starting a new query. In the FilmFinder users can select highlighted attributes on the information card and thereby set the value of the corresponding alphaslider to the value of that attribute [Figure 4]. This forms the starting point for the next query and allows graceful and rapid exploration with no fear of error messages.

The treemaps are a mosaic approach to showing hierarchical data that allows thousands of items to be seen at once, with zooming in to get even more detail. We've applied the treemaps to create a visual alternative to the MS Windows FileManager.

There are many visual alternatives but the basic principle for browsing and searching might be summarized as the Visual Information Seeking Mantra:

Overview first, zoom and filter, then details-on-demand

In several projects I found myself rediscovering this principle and therefore wrote it down and highlighted it as a continuing reminder.

To facilitate the filtering process, we developed the concept of tight coupling among the components of the display. For example, in most word processors the position of the thumb in the scroll bar is tightly coupled to the position of the window on the document, although there may be anomalies if large sections of a document are deleted. In our FilmFinder, after zooming in on a period for film production (say 1985-88) the other widgets such as the list of film titles would be automatically constrained to include only titles produced within the selected period. Application of tight coupling can increase comprehensibility and reduce search times. I conjecture that a greater sense of control will lead to a greater sense of responsibility.


The computing industry and the research community are moving ahead rapidly with a new generation of systems. If we can set new goals that are more closely related to the services users really want and need, then the industry will continue to grow rapidly. If we can design systems with effective visual displays, direct manipulation interfaces, and dynamic queries then users will be able to responsibly and confidently take on even more ambitious tasks.


1. Brown, C. Marlin, Human-Computer Interface Design Guidelines, Ablex Publishing Co., Norwood, NJ (1988).

2. Apple Computer, Inc., Macintosh Human Interface Guidelines, Addison-Wesley Publishing Co., Reading, MA, (1992), 384 pages.

3. Hix, Deborah, and Hartson, H. Rex, Developing User Interfaces: Ensuring Usability Through Product & Process, John Wiley & Sons, New York, NY, (1993).

4. Nielsen, Jakob, Usability Engineering, Academic Press, Boston, MA, (1993), 358 pages.

5. Shneiderman, Ben, Designing the User Interface: Strategies for Effective Human-Computer Interaction, Second Edition, Addison-Wesley Publ. Co., Reading, MA (1992).

6. Shneiderman, Ben (editor), Sparks of Innovation in Human-Computer Interaction , Ablex Publishers, Norwood, NJ (1993), 387 pages.

7. Norman, Don, The Psychology of Everyday Things, Basic Books, New York, NY, (1988).

8. Shneiderman, Ben, Dynamic queries for visual information seeking, IEEE Software (November 1994).

9. Ahlberg, Christopher, and Shneiderman, Ben, Visual Information Seeking: Tight coupling of dynamic query filters with starfield displays, Proc. of ACM CHI94 Conference, (April 1994), 313-317 + color plates.


Ben Shneiderman is a Professor in the Department of Computer Science, Head of the Human-Computer Interaction Laboratory, and Member of the Institute for Systems Research, all at the University of Maryland at College Park. He has taught previously at the State University of New York and at Indiana University. His technical interests include user interface design, information visualization, and applying educational technology. His 1987 book Designing the User Interface: Strategies for Effective Human-Computer Interaction, Addison-Wesley Publishers, Reading, MA (464 pages), was published in Japanese translation by Nikkei-McGraw-Hill. Dr. Shneiderman is on the Editorial Advisory Boards of the ACM Transactions on Computer-Human Interaction, International Journal of Man-Machine Studies, Behaviour and Information Technology, Interacting with Computers, and the International Journal of Human-Computer Interaction, and edits the Ablex Publishing Co. book series on "Human-Computer Interaction." He has consulted and lectured for IBM, Apple, GE, Honeywell, AT&T, Bell Labs, Citicorp, NASA, and university research groups.