I just returned a few days ago from InfoVis 2007, the premier annual conference of the information visualization research community. After attending the conference last year, I gave it a mixed review in this blog. Despite many worthwhile research projects that were presented, many struck me as poorly designed and of no obvious benefit to the real world. I care a great deal about this community and the work that we’re doing, because I care a great deal about those people and causes in the world that stand to benefit from this work. Consequently, I prod and provoke when it seems necessary to wake infovis researchers up to the great opportunities that they’re missing and the cost of such failures to the world.
From the opening keynote presentation by Matt Ericson, Graphics Editor at the New York Times, this year’s conference had a different tone than last year’s—one that warmed my heart and made me hopeful. Matt set a tone for the conference of “infovis for the masses” by showing how effectively well-designed visuals—even in static form on the printed page—can tell important news stories clearly and compellingly. When asked many weeks ago to deliver the capstone presentation at this year’s conference, and while preparing for it, I had no idea that anyone had a particular theme in mind for the conference. Matt’s opening keynote, several presentations during the conference, and my capstone presentation at the end, wove a common theme throughout that infovis research must become more relevant and useful to the world out there. I doubt that the sentiment was unanimous, but I could see on faces throughout the auditorium a glow of assent and inspiration as I addressed my infovis colleagues and wished them a fulfilling and productive year to come. They knew that by “productive” I meant that they contribute something positive, meaningful, and useful to the world—especially to those who are working to make it better.
I was very pleased to find that more of the work presented by the research community at this year’s conference seemed to be applicable to real problems that are experienced by more than a few and that the overall quality of the research seemed to be a bit better. This was encouraging, but we are still far from where we could be. The goal remains a dot on the distant horizon. I was poignantly reminded of this by several first-time attendees with whom I spoke during the conference. Many were from industry (both software vendors and end users of infovis), including a few who attended because of hearing about the conference from me on this blog. They expressed unanimous concern for how disconnected most of what they saw at the conference was from the uses of infovis that would benefit them. I was happy to tell them that things seem to be getting better, but frustrated that they couldn’t take more with them from this year’s conference but a sliver of hope for the future.
During a tutorial that I taught entitled “Bridging the Chasm between Infovis Research and the World Out There” on the day following the capstone, I was pleased that several people voiced a similar concern that it is not easy for infovis researchers to stay in touch with problems in the real world that infovis could potentially solve, nor is it easy for people outside the infovis community to find out what infovis already has to offer. We talked about creating a clearinghouse of ideas that could bring together people who wish to make their needs known and those who wish to make their infovis work known. In the coming months, I hope to explore this topic and solicit your ideas for making it happen and help in doing the work.
One observation that I made during many of the sessions was that most infovis researchers don’t do a very good job of presenting their work. I don’t expect everyone who does research to be an orator, but a greater effort to achieve one particular end that I’ll address here would be useful: know the venue. You’ve all heard the dictum “know your audience,” which is vital, but it is also helpful to know the strengths and weaknesses of the venue in which you’re presenting.
Some venues work well for presenting the details and others don’t. For example, long mathematical formulas and computer algorithms are appropriate when they appear in papers, allowing readers to study them for however long it takes to make sense of them. They are not, however, appropriate for live presentations. Even if we have the background to make sense of them (and I for one don’t), we don’t have the time to do so while a speaker is talking and the slides are visible for only a brief time.
Another consideration is that PowerPoint or Keynote slides, when filled with text, even in the form of short bullet points, don’t communicate effectively. Check the research, such as that done by multimedia learning expert Richard E. Mayer of the University of California, Berkeley. The redundancy of written words on the screen and roughly the same words coming out of your mouth does not increase understanding—plus, it’s downright boring. Not only is it not beneficial, it can be harmful. If you don’t speak the words that appear on the screen word for word in the same sequence, but instead paraphrase, which we usually do, people will spend a great deal of effort trying to match what you’re saying with the words on the screen. This distracts them from making sense of what you’re saying. Ideally, you want people to think about the information you’re presenting in a way that extends beyond the words themselves into the realm of concepts and connections. This isn’t possible if all of their attention is occupied trying to match your spoken and written commentary. The best combination of spoken word and projected slides during a presentation is either to visually illustrate what you’re stating verbally or to use the spoken word to explain what you are showing in the projected image. This is a complementary use of verbal and visual expression that your audience can perceive simultaneously. Those of us in the infovis community ought to know better than most how to use visualizations to communicate information, even on a PowerPoint slide. For tips on how to do this more effectively, I recommend Cliff Atkinson’s book Beyond Bullet Points.
I had a brilliant professor as an undergraduate named Dr. Wa (Walter) Gong. He ran a natural science program that was part of the general education curriculum. Every student who went through the program was taught and then required to document every lecture using what Dr. Gong called the “Four-Fold Method of Learning.” This method involved identifying and recording the following aspects of a lecture:
- Purpose (what the lecture was trying to accomplish)
- Thesis (the main points only, consisting of two or three at most)
- Validations (the facts that were given to back up the theses)
- Values (how the information could tie into someone’s values, whether or not they fit your personal values)
I did very well in this program, partly because I had already developed a similar method of thinking about and recording information. I believe that everyone who learned this method benefited greatly.
This same method for organizing and recording the contents of a lecture, book, or any form of presentation can be used when preparing a presentation as well. It would be useful for every presenter at InfoVis to feature answers to these four questions (“What are my primary assertions?”, etc.) in the presentation. Here is a different way of phrasing these questions that I believe would fit infovis paper presentations quite well:
- What was the purpose of my research? What was I trying to accomplish? (purpose)
- What were the main findings of my research? (thesis)
- What supports the veracity of my findings? (validation)
- Why does this matter? What does this work offer to the world? (values)
If you answer these four questions during the 20 minutes that you’re allowed using words and images to present your points clearly and to bring them to life, you will have given your audience something they actually might remember and care about.