I recently visited Professor Ben Shneiderman at the University of Maryland, arguably the world’s leading expert on user interface design, and talked to him about human computer interaction, sustainability, social network analysis and spreadsheets.

Ben’s most recent book, Designing the User Interface, with co-author Catherine Plaisant, is in its fifth edition and has lots
of compelling new material especially in visualisation and social
network technology.

Social Network Analysis and Spreadsheets

While I was at the university, I joined in a workshop on social network analysis and had my eyes opened to an exciting new world, indeed, a new kind of science, Science 2.0, as Ben has dubbed it in a letter to the magazine SCIENCE last year.

Ben’s argument is that traditional scientific methods (science 1.0) need to be expanded to deal with the complex issues that emerge in the new world of socio-technical systems from eBay, Facebook and MySpace to genome collaboration, patient-centred medical records and on-line political collaboration.

One of the first examples of the next generation of tools for analysing social networks is NodeXL, which is an open source extension for Microsoft Excel 2007 that provides extensive network analysis and visualisation features.

The letter in SCIENCE contains a fascinating analysis of political networking where, using NodeXL, the voting patterns of the Republican and the Democrat senators in the US show clearly the underlying party loyalties.

Whilst I must confess that some of the contributions to the workshop were way beyond my knowledge of network analysis, I was left with the feeling that this really is a new way of conducting science, especially in the case of social science.

In lab-based usability testing, we are lucky if our sample of participants reaches double figures and statistical tests of significance are rare. However, in Science 2.0, participants are numbered in their thousands and the results are not only powerful and predictive but also visible to all.

It remains to be seen how this will change the way science works but it has certainly had a major impact on US politics.  Barack Obama had 3m online donors during the election and 2m people were involved enough to create profiles on www.my.barackobama.com. With a UK election scheduled soon enough, I am sure British political parties have been doing their homework on the power of social networks. They may even start using NodeXL.  A far cry from the spreadsheet’s original claim to help you add columns of numbers.

This new use of Excel reminded me once again of the enormous power of the electronic spreadsheet concept. I remember hearing Dan Bricklin explain that he invented Visicalc (the forerunner of several spreadsheet packages culminating in Excel) as part of an MBA project to simulate the kind of spreadsheets that business school professors loved. 

Visicalc was a ‘killer application’ for the newly introduced IBM PC and was one of the few products which, in my experience, delivered more than it promised. It only claimed to allow you to process spreadsheets inserting and deleting rows and columns of numbers and then performing simple calculations like sums and averages.

In practice, it turned out to be a very powerful and flexible tool for analysing all kinds of data,  in my case questionnaire data. Having used mainframe-based statistical packages in the past, the elegant simplicity of the spreadsheet really appealed to me then, as NodeXL does now.


And where does sustainability fit in? Ben’s students at the Human Computer Interaction Laboratory (HCIL) have won prizes for their innovative work in encouraging people to make sustainable transport decisions so I took the opportunity to interview him about his views on human computer interaction and sustainability, which is the theme for this year’s World Usability Day.

We will be podcasting the interview with Ben, along with other leading figures in the world of design and sustainability as part of System Concept’s contribution to World Usability Day 2009.