Ben Shneiderman was born on August 21, 1947 to Samuel and Eileen Shneiderman. His parents were Polish-born journalists who immigrated to New York from Paris in 1940 with their two-year-old daughter, Helen. While growing up on Manhattan's Upper West Side, Shneiderman enjoyed stamp collecting, photography, building electronics projects, and playing baseball. During summers spent in the country on a chicken farm, which the Shneidermans owned jointly with four other families, he became familiar with agricultural chores like gathering eggs and plowing fields.
Shneiderman attended neighborhood public schools through junior high school, where his science projects (a solar furnace, a fuel cell, and a thermionic electricity generator) won prizes. Shneiderman attended the prestigious Bronx High School of Science and later the City College of New York (CCNY) from 1964 to 1968. He struggled with physics and math courses, but was enthralled by the new field of computing. Charles Kreitzberg, a fellow student who worked at the computer center, became Shneiderman's life-long collaborator and personal friend.
Shneiderman's resistance to specialization reflects the influence of Marshall McLuhan's philosophies on his outlook - the idea that the message is greatly impacted by the delivery system. In addition to studying computer science, Shneiderman took psychology courses and served as the yearbook photo editor at CCNY for three years. His uncle, the world-famous photographer David Seymour ("Chim"), influenced him towards photojournalism. In the end, computing won out over photography as a career, but Shneiderman remains a serious amateur photographer and occasionally publishes and exhibits his work.
At graduation from the City College of New York, Shneiderman received a fellowship for graduate work at Carnegie-Mellon University but was unable to attend. He spent three years at the State University of New York (SUNY) at Farmingdale (Long Island, New York), teaching Data Processing as a form of national service in lieu of serving in the armed services during the Vietnam War era. In 1969, he was able to travel the world and spend six weeks in an internship at Israel's Weizmann Institute of Science. Four years later, his work on a graph-theoretic model for optimization of database file structures earned him the first Ph.D. in Computer Science at the State University of New York's new Stony Brook campus. At SUNY Stony Brook, Shneiderman collaborated with fellow graduate student Isaac Nassi to create the now widely used structured flowcharts (Nassi-Shneiderman Diagrams).
In early 1973, Shneiderman married Nancy Helman. That summer, the couple moved to Bloomington, Indiana, where Shneiderman became Assistant Professor in the Indiana University Computer Science Department. Their first daughter, Sara, was born in January 1975.
By 1976, Shneiderman's work was moving towards experimental psychology, and he accepted a position in the Department of Information Systems Management in the University of Maryland's College of Behavioral and Social Sciences. The program was short-lived, and, in 1979, Shneiderman became a member of the Department of Computer Science. A second daughter, Anna, was born that year.
Shneiderman founded the Software Psychology Society in 1976 to bring together researchers who shared similar interests. This group developed the 1982 conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems in Gaithersburg, Maryland. The success of this conference contributed to the formation of the Association for Computing Machinery's (ACM) Special Interest Group in Computer Human Interaction (SIGCHI), which remains the main professional organization in this field.
Also in 1982, Shneiderman founded the interdisciplinary Human-Computer Interaction Lab (HCIL) at the University of Maryland. He developed the notion of "direct manipulation," which clarified the design principles and benefits of the emerging graphical user interfaces. This idea led directly to the invention of the "embedded menu" or "hot link" that became a key contribution to usability of the web.
Ben Shneiderman has written over 200 articles and published several books, including Elements of FORTRAN Style: Techniques for Effective Programming (with Charles Kreitzberg, 1972); Software Psychology: Human Factors in Computer and Information Systems (1980); Designing the User Interface: Strategies for Effective Human-Computer Interaction (1987); and Hypertext Hands-On! An Introduction to a New Way of Organizing and Accessing Information (with Greg Kearsley, 1989). He has also edited numerous articles and several books, including Directions in Human/Computer Interaction (1982) and Sparks of Innovation in Human-Computer Interaction (1993).
Throughout his career, Shneiderman has participated in research projects in the field of human-computer interaction, focusing primarily on the user interface, or, how information is presented on a computer screen. The "hot link" that forms the basis for today's web browsing was developed for a prototype electronic encyclopedia (TIES) for the U. S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and Education Center, which was eventually opened in Washington, D.C. in 1993. More recently, Shneiderman's research has focused on topics such as "Tree-Maps," compact visualization of directory tree structures, in response to the common problem of a filled hard disk.
Shneiderman is currently a tenured professor at the University of Maryland. In June 2001 he married Jenny Preece, who is Chair of the Department of Information Systems at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. His first marriage ended in 1993. He continues to work towards making human-computer interaction an accepted part of the computer science field. In recent years, he has received recognition for his work, including an honorary doctorate from the University of Guelph, Canada, a profile in Scientific American, Fellowships in two scientific societies, and the ACM SIGCHI Lifetime Achievement Award. In June 2000, Shneiderman relinquished the directorship of the HCIL, enabling him to pursue other projects.