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I am working with software that is used for scheduling astronomical observations. I've created a timeline view for the user to create, view, and edit observation schedules. Here's my mock-up:

enter image description here

  • Gray bars represent the times when a given target is available for observation (visibility windows).
  • Dark blue bars represent mandatory/manual observations, which force observation of a given target during the specified time interval.
  • Light blue bars represent optimize/optional observations, which allow the software to choose whether or not to observe the given target. The user can specify a maximum and/or minimum observation time
  • Red bars connected with dotted red lines represent a conflict between two mandatory targets. Note that the conflict extends beyond the strictly overlapping parts since it takes time to switch (slew) from one target to another.
  • The light purple bars and dotted blue lines represent "shadowing" of other targets by a mandatory target. Again, the "shadowing" interval can extend beyond the mandatory observation due to slew time.
  • The vertical stripes in the background and the top two bars they connect to represent day/night and interfering events that the user may want to take into account during planning.
  • On the left are the target names and IDs.

Here is an example of a real schedule plan in the current version of the timeline viewer (note I haven't implemented shadowing yet, and there are no conflicts in this schedule):

enter image description here

enter image description here


The problems I'm having with this interface are:

  • I'm not exactly happy with my plan for the shadowing bars. They're going to add a lot of visual clutter, and you can't tell whether or not an optimize observation is behind the shadowing bar. Also I don't like the purple color; I'd like the shadowed times to be visually de-emphasized.
  • An optimize observation can extend beyond/between the visibility windows; e.g. in the above plan there is only one optimize observation covering the whole planning period for each optimized target. I'd like the user to be able to easily see what visibility windows are in the same optimize observation.
  • The vertical stripes are kind of distracting. The gray stripes for night limit the number of gray levels I can use on the timeline (otherwise I'd probably be using that light gray for shadowing). Also, currently an interfering event will cover the day/night transition.
  • I'd like to add another visual element to identify gaps in the schedule (i.e. times when no observation is scheduled), and to highlight parts of visibility windows that could fill those gaps.

Any advice?

Some technical notes:

  • Due to limitations of the software I'm using I can't do hatched or patterned fills: solid fills only. However, the borders of filled regions can be solid, dashed, dash-dotted, etc.
  • Optimize observations for the same target can overlap each other, and with mandatory observations. E.g. a plan might have one optimize observation for target A covering the whole planning period with a target time of 10 ks, another optimize observation of A on a specific day with a target time of 5 ks, and a mandatory observation of A over a particular visibility window. This is equivalent to telling the software, "I want 10 ks of observations on this target, with at least half of the observations occurring on this day, including one observation occurring at this specific time."
  • There are two types of interfering events; they are associated with red and orange/yellow so I colored them that way here, but it is not critical to keep those colors (or even keep the two types distinct).
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    Wow, I don't think anyone can critique your question for not being thorough enough! This sounds like a very complicated (but powerful/flexible) piece of software. I agree with your instincts that adding more noise should be avoided, so I'll pose an opposite idea: would your software support filtering this scheduling interface based on type of "data point"? That way, instead of adding more things to the UI, you can simply show the things you are actively interested in. For example, if you only care about gaps in the schedule, could you have a "gaps only" view that will then point those out? – maxathousand Apr 25 '18 at 20:05
  • I'd love to be working on a project like this! Always interesting to see different types of visualization that are designed to help the users make decisions and improve their work efficiency. I think you would have to understand the main objective for the user to be able to highlight the information that they need to see better... I am assuming this is to complete the mandatory observations first? – Michael Lai Apr 25 '18 at 22:34
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Let's break the problem down into simpler goals, and I think the two main ones that I have identified are:

  • Making user input simple and convenient
  • Making information clear and actionable for the user

There are two main strategies that I think need to be implemented to make user input simple and convenient.

  • Allow the user to focus on an individual or a selected groups of events
  • Allow the user to provide input for the required level of accuracy and also duplicate those inputs for related events (e.g. batch input)

In terms of making information clear and actionable, which is the main focus of your question (but I think solving the input problem precedes that), I think there are some areas that you need to consider from the user's point of view:

  • How much information do they need to see at any given point in time? Are there views for individual events, groupings of events and all of the events (if required)?
  • Do they need to see the raw data/input all the time or do they just need to make adjustments once the values have been set (and are there views specific to these needs)?
  • How can you take advantage of the user's domain knowledge to create something that makes the information more intuitive and easy to understand for them?

To me you need to have more research based on the users to answer those questions, but from a purely infographic and data visualization perspective (generic as it might be), the main points of interest or questions I think you need to answer are:

  • Is there a good way to show cycles (as there appears to be for the events) so you can reduce the amount of timeline information that needs to be displayed (since there are going to be duplications)?
  • Are the colours used relevant or easy to understand in the context of the information displayed?
  • Are the most important information easily distinguishable? Is it possible to switch on/off or layer information over the events?
  • Can the user make informed decisions quickly based on what they see on the screen?

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