Responses to InfoVis 2007 — Differing opinions on how to promote our work

Several people who attended the InfoVis 2007 conference and heard my capstone presentation, “InfoVis as Seen by the World Out There: 2007 in Review,” have written about it in blogs. I’m grateful for each of these responses, even when they disagree with me. One of my intentions in the capstone presentation was to stimulate discussion. In the last few days, Mike Danziger and Joe Parry in particular have opened the door to discussion in their blogs, which I would like to advance by responding. Mike and Joe both commented thoughtfully. It is clear that they both care a great deal about information visualization. Their combined comments took issue with four aspects of my position or means of expressing it. I hope that in responding to their comments, I’ll be able to engage Mike, Joe, and others in a way that will help the information visualization community reflect on and advance its important work.

Issue #1: Few dismisses popular examples of visualization without trying to understand what’s useful about them.

… he was dismissing without trying to understand what is useful about them (in addition to his criticism of Swivel, he wrote off the Ambient Orb, and the list of infovis examples recently published by Smashing Magazine).
…the fact that (some) people find it [the Ambient Orb] compelling suggests that there is something engaging about its presentation. Rather than writing it off as useless, why not try to figure out how to incorporate its engaging qualities in to more “sophisticated” visualization systems?
(Mike Danziger)

What is perhaps not obvious, based on my capstone presentation alone, is the fact that I spend a fair amount of time trying to understand what draws people to ineffective visualizations—those that fail to serve the needs of the audience while managing to appeal to that audience on some level. Regarding the Ambient Orb in particular, I’m not sure that many people really find it engaging, and I doubt that those who do are engaged by “its presentation,” which is rather meager. I suspect that they see the Ambient Orb as a novelty item, much like that painting of dogs playing poker. I believe that the article by Smashing Magazine created a buzz in the blogosphere because it introduced a community of techies to something that was new to them. For that I’m grateful; I just wish the article had been more discriminating in what it included and more knowledgeable about infovis. I believe that the early popularity of Swivel, and the fact that it has since been overshadowed by Many-Eyes in popularity, makes the case that people will become more excited by better visualizations when given the choice. Many-Eyes has managed to make the process of data exploration and analysis interesting and fun, without resorting to features that undermine the effectiveness of the activity.

I hope that I’m never guilty of writing off meaningful aspects of visualization as useless, simply because they don’t match my own preferences—aesthetic or otherwise. If you ever catch me doing so, I want you to call me on it. Just make sure that what you point out as useful in a visualization is actually useful and not just appealing to your own preferences.

Issue #2: Few underestimates the power of playfulness in reaching out to an audience.

I also think he underestimates the power of playfulness and fun in reaching out to an audience – come on – Swivel’s option to “bling your graph” is just funny!
(Joe Parry)

Actually, I believe that my work demonstrates how much I appreciate the power of playfulness in reaching out to an audience. My capstone presentation was certainly an example of this. The difference between my use of playfulness and examples like Swivel’s “bling your graph” is that I try very hard to use playfulness to engage people in thinking meaningfully about the message that I’m trying to communicate and to remember that message. If putting photos in the background of a graph (Swivel’s “bling your graph” feature) were “just funny,” I wouldn’t object. The problem is, this feature actually undermines the graph’s ability to present information and suggests that presentations can be improved by means of gratuitous decoration. Joe—you seem to make this distinction yourself when you thanked “Nathan” for his critique of “Graphwise.com,” (much more scathing than my own review of it, by the way), which pointed out how the picture in the background of a graph that was featured at Graphwise undermined its effectiveness.

Issue #3: Few is more concerned with telling people the “right” way than understanding their needs.

Few’s conception of popular infovis design is particularly hard-line – more about telling the masses how to display information the “right” way, rather than thinking about how non-experts might interact with information differently and with different needs.
Everything about his presentation revolved around showing “outsiders” why their intuition about infovis is wrong. If our goal is to produce infovis that makes sense to these non-experts, I don’t think this mentality is constructive.
(Mike Danziger)

I can understand why my approach to information visualization might seem “hard-line” and focused on telling people the “right way.” This perception is accurate, but incomplete. When a great deal of evidence indicates that certain visualization practices work better than others, I believe that it’s helpful to teach people to follow the best practices and avoid those that fail. Thousands of people who have attended my courses, heard my presentations, or read my work, are grateful for this information, because it helps them to do their jobs better. They have better things to do with their time than make mistakes that could easily be avoided once they’re known.

As I see it, doing things the right way and caring about the needs of people are not separate concerns, but one and the same. I define the “right way” as the way that best satisfies the needs of people—the way that works. I’m a pragmatist. What I don’t do is define the “right way” as the way that people desire things to be done. Our desires, our notions of how things should be done, often conflict with the way that really works. Who among us has not suffered countless times from decisions, based on desires, which end up biting us in the butts?

What is definitely not true of my work is that it is not sensitive to or informed by the needs of “non-experts.” In fact, it was an awareness of the needs of non-experts that gave rise to my work. Unlike many folks in the information visualization research community, I live and work among “non-experts” everyday. Non-experts take my courses and read my books because they are looking for help. They realize that they were never taught how to present data effectively or to use graphical representations to make sense of data. When I show examples of all-too-familiar but ineffective graph design practices, they laugh and admit—”Yes, I do that all the time.” They’re not offended, because I’m not presenting the examples to offend them. We laugh together about the mistakes that have become commonplace, and then have fun together learning ways to present and reason about data more effectively.

Issue #4: Few’s approach hurts our efforts to popularize information visualization.

I think that attitude does a disservice to the goal of popularizing information visualization. (Mike Danziger)
I understand why he is so passionate about designing clear visuals, but sometimes that passion can err on the abrasive side.
(Joe Parry)

This is difficult to hear. I certainly hope this isn’t true. If I did nothing but expose and oppose visualizations that are in my opinion ineffective, playing no role but that of a gadfly, I might be guilty of serving information visualization poorly and certainly only partially. This is hardly the case, however. I promote effective information visualizations just as passionately as I oppose those that illegitimately claim the title.

The real “disservice to the goal of popularizing information visualization” is the existence of (1) ineffective or irrelevant infovis projects and products that represent our work poorly, and (2) the unfortunate inability of many experts in the field to present their work to those who need it in a way that they can relate to, care about, and understand. These problems are what I’m trying in my own small way to fix. I hope that my efforts rarely “err on the abrasive side” or are guilty of unfair or unsubstantial criticism.

Take care,

Signature

7 Comments on “Responses to InfoVis 2007 — Differing opinions on how to promote our work”


By nixnut. November 19th, 2007 at 12:58 pm

“the goal of popularizing information visualization”
Should that even be a goal? Isn’t infovis that _works_ far more important than its popularity? By aiming for popularity you are in danger of losing sight of the real purpose of infovis: facilitate understanding and communicate

By GleaM. November 21st, 2007 at 4:12 am

The goal should ever be doing infovis ‘the right way’. And of course, trying to find it and then continuously improve it.

At the end, good things shine over.

But, and taking the last message quoted carefully, probably some roadmap for ’sending the message to the world’ should be carefully planned. Which means showing how to do it correctly, kind, and easily, one step at a time. But I am a non-expert myself, and I find Stephen’s teachings easy to hear, read, understand and apply, so then I think that’s being achieved (or at least, done along that direction).

So, heartfully: Thank you for that, Stephen.

By Dan Gerena. November 21st, 2007 at 6:28 pm

Stephen,
I just read your recent presentation. Frankly, I’m unsure what part of the message you conveyed could be controversial. Granted I’m not in the infovis world, but rather a user, responsible for presenting data and analysis within my organization. From my perspective, what you are evangelizing is extremely important to my own role, and I thank you for taking a side in the debate on these matters, and defending your positions. It’s a message I have not seen anywhere else. Thanks for your contributions.

By Adrian. November 22nd, 2007 at 9:30 am

Regarding issue #3

As consultants and practitioners in information technology I think we owe it to our clients to strive for excellence and show them optimal strategies for using information to make decisions that affect their business.

By Mike. November 25th, 2007 at 3:18 pm

Hi Steve,

I just posted a response to this post back at my blog, http://visualmethods.blogspot.com (sorry for the delay), but I wanted to say a few quick words in response to the comments here.

nixnut:

Popularizing visualization should absolutely be a goal, but by “popularizing” I mean making it accessible, both in terms of production and consumption, to non-experts. In that respect, I don’t see infovis “that works” as mutually exclusive with its accessibility.

GleaM, Dan Gerena, Adrian:

While I agree with you in principle, it’s important to understand that there isn’t necessarily one “right way” for all types of infovis users. I’m arguing for more awareness of this fact.

Cheers,

-mike

By Jeff Carr. November 28th, 2007 at 5:45 pm

Steve, first thanks for a great presentation. I covered this debate at http://datapuzzle.typepad.com, and added my thoughts on it as well. As a side note, I’ve been trying to get my colleagues at Microsoft to adopt your design principles, but old habits die hard. :-)

By Rob Shipley. January 31st, 2008 at 7:26 pm

I really agree with these responses and think Steven is a realist and will always have critics. There is always someone that is safe with hiding their personal business objectives. Information Visualization should have best practices just like Information Technology.
As a non-expert, it is amazing how I can instantly notice mistakes and lies in information visualization after reading Steven Few’s books. I love attending marketing presentations and holding their feet to the fire. They attempt to cover up the real data all the time. Everyone should have this knowledge, i.e. this is real information for the masses.