I’ve often complained that much information visualization research is poorly designed, produces visualizations that don’t work in the real world, or is squandered on things that don’t matter. To some degree this sad state of affairs is encouraged by the wayward values of many in the community. A glaring example of this is the “InfoVis Best Paper” award that was given at this year’s conference (and many in past years as well). Despite the obvious technical talent that went into developing the “Context-Preserving Visual Links” that won this year’s award, these visual links are almost entirely useless for practical purposes.
Context-preserving visual links are lines that connect items in a visualization or set of related visualizations to highlight those items and thus make them easier to find, and do so in a way that minimally occludes other information. There are many ways that items can be highlighted. The best methods apply visual attributes to those items that we perceive preattentively, causing them to pop out in the display. This approach highlights items without adding meaningless visual content to the display. As you can see in the following example of context-preserving visual links, items are highlighted by the addition of lines to connect them.
The lines are the most salient objects in the display, yet they mean nothing. Drawing someone’s attention to visual content that is meaningless undermines the effectiveness of a visualization. They direct attention where it isn’t needed. Even worse in this case, they suggest meanings that don’t actually exist by forming paths, which usually suggest meaningful routes through data. Also, lines that connect items suggest that those items are somehow related, but this is not always the case.
My intention here is not to devalue the talents of these researchers, and certainly not to discourage them, but to bemoan the fact their obvious talents were misdirected. What a shame. Why did no one recognize the dysfunctionality of the end result and warn them before all of this effort was…I won’t say wasted, because they certainly learned a great deal in the process, but rather “misapplied,” leading to a result that can’t be meaningfully applied to information visualization.
The fact that this work was given the “Best Paper” award indicates a fundamental problem in the information visualization research community: because so many in the community are focused on the creation of technology—a computer engineering task—they lose sight of the purpose of information visualization, which is to help people think more effectively about data, resulting in better understanding, better decisions, and ultimately a better world. Except in those rare instances when context-preserving visual links represent meaningful paths that connect items that are in fact related, they are useless. The fact that they connect items in a way that minimally occludes other items in the visualization is a significant technical achievement, but one that undermines use of the data.
Technical achievement should be rewarded, but not technical achievement alone. More important criteria for judging the merits of research are the degree to which it actually works and the degree to which it does something that actually matters. Information visualization research must be approached from this more holistic perspective. Those who direct students’ efforts should help them develop this perspective. Those who award prizes for work in the field should use them to motivate research that works and matters. Anything less is failure.