Solutions in search of problems
There is an interesting intervew with John Stasko at mentegrafica published recently. I really liked the point made by John about "solutions in search of problems" style of research in InfoVis. Since recently (and today still) we have lived with this way of producing visualizations: inventing a new technique for the sake of it and then trying to find a practical application, i.e., an appropriate problem.
There is a plethora of examples, especially on the web. And many are pointed by this blog too, because they are just fun! After all, why are we so attracted by visualizations? You can respond in many ways but I'm sure that the deepest feeling and the real reason is that they are just cool: beautifull to see, engaging, colorful, etc. However, I agree with John's point and I also believe that in order to make a dent in this world (quoting steve jobs) we must care about the utility of things we make and struggle to find approriate solutions for specific people.
The same and similar points were raised at the BELIV'06 workshop we organized last May 2006 in Venice (colocated with the AVI Conference). It was a really enjoyable event and we discussed a lot about these things in such terms.
Anyway it's worth to note that this is not unique to infovis only but also to all the sciences which actually are engineering (thus almost any areas of computer science). This is just the way new scientific fields develop. At the beginning some small niche of people get interested in the concept and produce new ideas, new prototypes and the rest. Then, when the field becomes more mature, people start asking themselves if these applications are useful or not. I am glad today we are facing these questions because it means we are entering a new phase and thus the field is getting more mature.
One side effect of this is that it is becoming more and more difficult to publish papers in good conferences (like IEEE InfoVis Symposium). Now the reviewers expect to find strong claims about the utility of the proposed technique, real improvements over related solutions and some sort of experiments/tests that demonstrate the quality of your work in practical settings. Sure, I understand this approach can be questioned in that it might discourage the production of really novel ideas, but still this is the classic evolution of research fields. The same has happend and it is still happening at Siggraph for example (probably the biggest conference out there), which has a much longer tradition than infovis. See for example this guy who retired because disgusted about the way papers get reviewed at Siggraph, leaving only this laconic message in his page "in summer 2006 I will be leaving Stony Brook University ... you are interested to read above my reasons, click here". Similar complaints happen at CHI conference too. See these funny arguments made by Henry Lieberman, and Shumin Zhai's response.
So ok, I don't want to push this thing too far ... anyway I really liked John's expression and I think I will use it many times in the future for explaining why nice ideas are not enough, why beautiful images are not enough (apart from artistic purposes?), and thus why our ultimate purpose as researchers/designers is to help people accomplish their tasks better (more efficient, more fun, more effective), quoting F.Brooks's famous Computer Scientist as Toolsmith (pdf):
If we perceive our role aright, we then see more clearly the proper criterion for success: a toolmaker succeeds as, and only as, the users of his tool succeed with his aid. However shining the blade, however jeweled the hilt, however perfect the heft, a sword is tested only by cutting. That swordsmith is successful whose clients die of old age.
I know some people do not agree with me, but this is the way things progress: debating about different ways to view the world. Enjoy! :-)