Multiple Window Coordination for Visual Information Access in High Performance User Interfaces

Ben Shneiderman* & Eser Kandogan
Department of Computer Science,
Human-Computer Interaction Laboratory
Institute for Systems Research*
University of Maryland
College Park, MD 20742


E-mail :
Tel : (301) 405-2680
Fax : (301) 405-6770

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Usability and User-Centered Design


Window Manager, Multi-window operations, Personal Role Manager, Programming Environment, Navigation Problem


Advancing hardware, software, and networking technology have raised expectations for users of Geographical Information Systems (GIS), 3-D graphics tools, information directories, scientific visualization, medical image databases, desktop publishing, programming environments, network management, video or animation editing, and other domains. These domain experts are motivated users who are attempting more ambitious projects that demand rapid processing and access to large amounts of visual information, but unfortunately the graphical user interfaces (GUIs) in many systems have not kept up with the needs and possibilities for visualizing information. Advantages of large screens and fast displays are lost or misused, leading to confusion, poor user performance, frustration, and missed opportunities.

Today's windowing systems,providing visual information access (maps, information directories, scientific visualization, computer programs plus documentation, multimedia), do not differ much in their basic principles of window management. Almost all systems follow the independent overlapping windows approach, where windows are allowed to overlap each other, operations on windows are performed one at a time, and size and location of each window is independent. This often makes it difficult for users to locate what they need and to coordinate several sources of information.

We feel that the greatest and most immediate payoff will come by improving current methods for hierarchical browsing for maps, large images, file directories, or network diagrams. In our study on image browsers, we introduced an informal specification technique to describe 2D browsers and a task taxonomy, suggested design features and guidelines, and assessed existing strategies [plaisant2]. On our study of future desktop environments we made the observation that the design of coordinated window applications in which semi-automatic opening, closing, and resizing of windows as a result of user's activity in the task domain would be beneficial [plaisant1,shneiderman2]. Based on these changes and the problems of current windowing approaches, we have updated the requirements for multi-window systems to guide new methods of window management [kandogan]:

  • support multi-window operations to promote organization and coordination of windows according to tasks.
  • allow fast task-switching and resumption.
  • free users' cognitive resources to work on task related operations rather than to window management operations.
  • use screen space efficiently and productively for the tasks.
  • allow fast temporary window arrangements.

    We propose elastic windows with improved spatial layout and rapid multi-window operations. Multi-window operations are achieved by issuing operations on a hierarchically organized group of windows in a space-filling tiled layout. Sophisticated multi-window operations like Hook, Pump, Minimize, Restore, Move and Relocate have been developed to handle fast task-switching and to structure the work environment of users to their rapidly changing needs. We believe that users' performance and satisfaction could be substantially improved while reducing error rates and frustration if multiple window operations are provided. A CS-TR-3473. [Abstract file]

    [plaisant2] Plaisant, C., Carr, D., Shneiderman, B. (April 1994) Image browsers: taxonomy, guidelines, and informal specifications, IEEE Software, vol.12, #2 (March 1995) 21-32. Technical report CAR-TR-712 CS-TR-3282, ISR-TR-94-39. [Abstract file]

    [shneiderman] Shneiderman B., Plaisant, C. (May 1994) The future of graphic user interfaces : personal role managers, People and Computers IX, British Computer Societys HCI 94 (Glasgow, S cotland, Aug. 1994) 3-8. Technical report CAR-TR-713 CS-TR-3285, ISR-TR-94-48. [Abstract fil e]

    [kandogan] Kandogan, E., Shneiderman, B., Elastic Windows: Improved Spatial Layout and Rapid Multiple Window Operations, (1995) Technical report CAR-TR-786 CS-TR-3522, ISR-TR-95-89 [Postcript file] [Abstract file] [Text only].


    The challenge of providing access to multiple sources of information has stimulated many solutions. Multiple monitors, Split displays, Tiling, Piles-of-tiles, Cascades, Zooming, and Overlaps are some of them. Emprical studies are beginning to clarify issues and to establish methods for measuring performance and ability in windowing environments. Coordinated windows, in which windows appear, change contents, and close as a result of users activity in the task domain is a strong candidate element of new generation of window systems.


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    Shneiderman, B., Designing the User Interface: Strategies for Effective Human-Computer Interaction: Second Edition, Addison Wesley Publ. Co., Reading, MA, (1992), Ch.9.


    Adaptive Human Interfaces


    Last update : October 13, 1995