A few days ago in this blog I responded to critiques of my InfoVis 2007 capstone presentation that were published in other blogs by Mike Danziger and Joe Parry, who both attended the conference. Mike Danziger has graciously and thoughtfully continued this discussion in his own blog. Mike expressed his concern that readers not see his critique as a personal attack on me. Let me make it clear before responding to the Mike’s points that I don’t consider Mike’s critique a personal attack in the least. As I said previously, I appreciate Mike’s comments and am grateful for them because they open the door to useful discussion. I’d like to focus on a few points that Mike made in his recent response.
Mike states that the primary disconnection between his perspective and mine involves different uses of a few terms:
What makes these statements problematic to me, and what was part of what I was trying to get at in my original critique, are Steve’s definitions of terms like “useful,” “(in)effective,” and “[user] needs,” with regard to information visualization. If I were to try to identify, right off the bat, the fundamental disconnect between the two “camps” that Steve and I represent, it would be that we don’t necessarily agree on what these terms mean.
I believe that something is “useful” (that is, it matters) and “effective” (that is, it works) to the degree that it satisfies worthwhile “needs” of those who use it. If a person watches a television program solely to be entertained and that person has what he or she considers an entertaining experience, it is effective. Whether it is useful or not is a different matter, although I’ll readily admit that there are occasions in my own life when I simply want to laugh and little else. The point is, I judge usefulness and effectiveness based on a defined set of objectives related to the needs of particular people. When I critique a particular visualization or approach to visualization, I do so in the context of a particular set of objectives. I do have a bias, however, which I’ll admit without apology. By definition, I believe that information visualization must “inform” people—that is, it must impart information resulting in understanding. In some cases, other objectives may also be relevant, but they are in conflict with the primary objective of informing if they undermine this experience.
I believe that Mike has set up an artificial dichotomy between vaguely defined classes of visualization.
My contention is that this sort of traditional, “scientific” understanding of information visualization, while certainly valuable in some domains (such as business intelligence), is too restrictive when considering its broader, more popular uses. For one thing, there is the obvious point that “popular visualization” does not necessarily share the same critical goals. Many of the infovis examples that Steve criticized from the Smashing Magazine article exemplify this, in that they present information that is not necessarily “mission critical” in the same way BI information might be – people are not necessarily viewing these visualizations because they need to make critical decisions based on the meaning of the data they present. Rather, they are perhaps more “casual” forms of information visualization in which directness and efficiency of transmission are not the primary goal, which then complicates our conception of “usefulness” or “effectiveness.”
What exactly is “popular visualization”? Mike suggests that it involves a use of infovis that supports objectives that are not “mission critical.” Actually, very few uses of infovis in the domain of business intelligence are mission critical. I believe, however, that even when not “mission critical,” information visualization should still be informative. Whether something is mission critical or not has no bearing on whether the information should be presented in an understandable way.
Anyone who creates an information visualization has the right to define its specific objectives, as long as informing is one of them. That visualization should be judged both on the merits of the objectives—a value judgment—and its ability to satisfy those objectives—a pragmatic judgment, which is determined by comparing the outcomes to those objectives. When I critique an information visualization, I attempt to judge it in this way. For instance, are the objectives of the ambient orb useful, and if so, is it effective? The objectives might be useful for some people, but the ambient orb certainly doesn’t satisfy them effectively compared to other means. Are the objectives of Many-Eyes useful and effective—in this case I believe the answer is a resounding yes, despite the fact that it should and no doubt will continue to improve in many ways.
Mike’s notion of popular visualization requires that it concern itself with “engagement design.”
While it’s true that infovis, as a field, grew out of a “strict” scientific tradition (ie. computer science) that informs its theories and methodologies, it is going to have to broaden its understanding of the ways in which “normal” people interact with information if it wants to present itself as accessible to the masses. I think the field will need to start thinking more in terms of “engagement design” rather than the highly quantified metrics of efficiency, time on task, etc., that have traditionally characterized user studies in HCI and interface design.
Information visualization, as I understand and practice it, grew out of many disciplines—not just computer science. I wholeheartedly agree that, despite the many disciplines that inform it, it must “broaden its understanding of the ways in which ‘normal’ people interact with information.” I also believe that it must deepen its understanding. To work effectively, infovis must engage those who interact with it. What isn’t clear to me, however, is what Mike means by engagement. Engaged in what and for what purpose? In much of my work, I advocate the importance of people becoming engaged with information visualization in a way that allows them to become immersed in the process of exploring and making sense of the information, without being distracted or disrupted by the mechanics of using the software. I have the impression, however, that Mike is using the term engagement differently, suggesting that people should become drawn into the visualization by any means possible, not necessarily in a way that engages them in meaningfully exploring and making sense of information.
Mike concludes by expressing a sentiment that I appreciate:
I’m not arguing that its design principles should replace the ones that Steve talks about, but I’m completely certain that the two perspectives are not mutually exclusive; the reality, I think, is that both could benefit from a more robust understanding of one another.
I agree and am finding this discussion helpful. I suspect that much of the apparent conflict between our perspectives is semantic, but semantic conflict is often the hardest to uncover, understand, and reconcile. Let’s keep working at it. For those of you who are following this discussion and wish to contribute, I invite you to do so in the spirit of working together to improve what we do. This is not a battle with good guys and bad guys. This is how people who share a common passion strive to further the cause.