From Technology Review (via WSJ):
Looking for a book, CD, or movie recommendation? Type in the name of an author that you like at Gnooks.com and up pops a screen of other writers. But what makes the site different is that the authors don’t appear as a scrollable list. Instead, the name you provide sits in the middle of the browser window while the suggested names are sprinkled about, quivering and dancing as though trying to elbow each other out of the way to reach the center.
This is search visualization in action. The closer another writer is to your choice, the more likely the system thinks that you will also enjoy that author’s work. Gnooks and other systems are applying data visualization and relationship analysis techniques to help people get a different view of what’s on the Web. Rather than deliver search results as a long roster of links, graphical searches show how different categories and types of information relate to each other. The hard part is finding a way of presenting the information without requiring the user to get a degree in how to use the interface.
Graphics add a powerful capability to searching because of the way people perceive, says Phil H. Goddard, a director at Human Factors International, a Fairfield, Iowa, consulting firm. “Human beings are spatial processors,” he says. For example, most people find it easier to comprehend data in tabular form than in an unformatted list. Graphical front ends to search engines can organize and present information in ways that let users absorb and process it more efficiently. Such tools, Mr. Goddard says, are “capitalizing on the effect that we see patterns and learn patterns and parse patterns faster than we process text.”
“The biggest challenge with visualization is data overload,” says Greg Coyle, general manager of Ancubis, a Cambridge, U.K.-based developer of search visualization tools. “When the data sets get large, it’s a challenge to usefully visually represent that and not scare the hell out of the user.” Effective presentation requires understanding how to categorize it and relate one piece of information to another. So developers need descriptive information about the underlying data that people want to search.