Information visualization for the masses – the dialogue continues

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.

Take care,


9 Comments on “Information visualization for the masses – the dialogue continues”

By Pat Hanrahan. November 26th, 2007 at 9:01 pm

I think this is a very worthwhile discussion, and if you don’t mind, let me add a few thoughts.

First, let me say I actually really enjoyed Stephen’s presentation. Having attended this conference for many years, I think it served a very useful purpose which was to educate many of us about what is going on out there in the real world. Despite all our enthusiasm for our subject, information visualization is still underappreciated and not practiced well by the majority of users. And most software designers are not tuned in to the subtle distinctions that both of you are making.

Having said, I actually agree with Mike’s points. I think there are many dimensions by which to judge visualizations. And even those that seem very subjective can lead to measurable and important effects. For example,

o Aesthetics - Attractive things are perceived as more usable than unattractive things. Everyone has heard of Noam Tractinsky’s studies as popularized by Don Norman in his recent book Emotion and Design. Similar results have been found by Byron Reeves and Cliff Nass. What is effective is often affective.

o Style - Style is an important communication mechanism. Style communicates subtle contextual cues that are absent from minimalist graphics. They brand the graphics and in the process tells us something about who is saying what. The importance of subtle contextual cues are recognized by any strong communicator trained in rhetoric. Egoless designs without styles lose this important communication chennel. In fact, the minimalist style that Stephen practices, says a lot about who he is and what he stands for.

o Playfulness is important. Playfulness encourages experimentation and exploration. Active exploration will lead to better understanding than passive viewing. The fun and engaging interactive visualizations created by Martin Wattenberg have a big effect on how those using them understand the data.

o Vividness of a graphic can cause an image to be much more memorable. This is one of the standard complaints about Tufte’s minimal approach. Icons don’t convey much information about a file, but they do speed up visual search.

Stephen’s quest for the principles of effective design is an important one, and is underappreciated by many practitioners. But a modernist, minimalist approach removes a lot of richness of visual representation which makes the field so fascinating. We need to raise the level of discourse to the level in your blogs in order to make progress.

By Stephen Few. November 26th, 2007 at 10:51 pm


To the degree that aesthetics, style, playfulness, and vividness support the purpose of informing, I enthusiastically support them as worthwhile aspects of information visualization. It is only when they are applied in ways that undermine the user’s understanding of the information that I find them harmful. The effectiveness of an information visualization can only be judged in light of its objectives, and the primary objective should be to inform. If a visualization has a different primary objective, perhaps it should be called something other than an “information visualization.”

I’m familiar with Don Norman’s case for the utility of aesthetically pleasing design, and have no difficulty accepting style as useful, based on my general design studies, but I’m not familiar offhand with any experimental evidence that playfulness or vividness help to inform. Are you aware of studies that support this possibility?

Regarding vividness in particular, I advocate the use of vivid icons to draw attention to particular items in a display, such as particular metrics on a dashboard. Vividness is a useful way to make something stand out and thus easier to find, but making everything in a display vivid serves no purpose that I’m aware of and can actually undermine a visualization, because when everything stands out, nothing in particular stands out. Also, overly vivid displays, such as those filled with fully saturated primary colors, are not aesthetically pleasing.

By Pat Hanrahan. November 27th, 2007 at 9:38 am

I completely agree that these criteria must be used appropriately. Just like perceptual coding, they can be poorly applied. I just want to make sure that visualizations that use these dimensions are not precluded from the design space.

In terms of studies supporting these points, I worry that we are being side-tracked by semantics. You use the word ”inform.” Would you agree that things that are more memorable might be more informative? For if you can’t remember something, it seems unlikely that you will use the information. And would you agree that if you don’t comprehend something, then you haven’t been informed? By comprehension I mean that you can use the information you have been given to reason about a problem that requires the use of that information. I mentioned memorability and comprehension because these are some of the criteria that cognitive pyschologists use to assess visualizations. If you agree that informative visualizations should be memorable and comprehendable, then I believe there is strong evidence that playfullness and vividness may lead to more informative visualizations. However, these are complex subjects and a book could be written on each. Perhaps some of your readers will be able to contribute their understanding of what is known?

By vividness I mean all the extraneous things that lead to better recall. There is a nice summary of results in this area in Reeves and Nass’ ”The Media Equation.” They show that images on large screens are more memorable than small screens, and loud sounds are more memorable than soft sounds. Another recent study from the Max Planck Institute that got a lot of press a few years ago showed that color images are more memorable than black and white images. In fact, one of the great studies in psychology showed that images were more memorable than words. The factors
that effect memorability are quite complicated.

Playfullness is a bit harder to pin down. I meant those factors that make exploration fun and engaging. Engagement is so important because it encourages active exploration (and interaction). I believe the learning literature is very clear that active learning is better than passive learning. It leads to better comprehension.

One of my favorite experiments along these lines was performed in the 1960s by James Gibson. He showed that it is easier to recognize objects if you actively manipulate them with your hands compared to having someone else manipulate them for you. The effect is very pronounced. David Kirsh, a cognitive psychologist at UCSD, has also done some excellent work in this area. I believe that interaction is a bigger congnitive cue than most of the perceptual cues that we so often emphasize.

There are just some of the references. One might argue with my terms vividness and playfullness, but I think there is strong evidence that there are important effects along these lines that make visualizatons more ”informative.”

By Dan Gerena. November 27th, 2007 at 2:48 pm

As a layperson with little to no education in these matters, can I point out a distinction that might help with the semantics a bit? Pat’s opinions of playfulness, vividness, etc are relevant when the context is something such as a 1 time presentation whose intent is to leave the user more informed than when they arrived. In that case, you might consider a marching band or strobe lights or whatever helps get your point across and helps the user remember once long gone.

But in terms of the repetitive nature of everyday business life, often what I present to users is in the form of a dashboard or scorecard, and many times I’m not even present when the user views the results. In such a scenario, vivid or playful is not desired from the end-user perspective, but rather “tell me, as fast as possible, what I need to know so I can go on with life”. Such users are repeat customers, checking dashboards daily, or 3 times per week. Minimalism is desired. They are not looking the embed into their long-term memory today’s ER volume, but just want it for short term use. Anything else that adds “ink” or noise detracts from that purpose.

By David Harper. November 28th, 2007 at 2:54 pm

Thanks for sharing your awesome slide deck from your presentation. I am not really working in this field (I’ve built lots dashboards for clients who paid me, but i never knew what i was doing). I just wanted to say three things:

1. I envy that you sit at, IMO, one of the most interesting cross-roads in all of business. What other field crosses so many “new” disciplines (tech, design, software, quant) and is so obviously relevant going forward. I don’t know how to contain or bound the relevance of infoViz given the fact that data is outstripping our ability to process

2. It seems natural Stephen will encounter some resistance. It’s wild-and-woolly phase and, therefore, some will want to give the crowd what it wants (ambient orbs). But users (like me) don’t know *really* what we want, we have no idea, no language, no metaphors, will can just point to stuff (”I like that!”)…somebody has to resist mere marketing and insist on the correct path….the problem with a purely marketing (customer) orientation is that is will react to temporal novelties (e.g., I embraced the novelty of Xcelsius but it has not, in my opinion, met many durable criteria and therefore, as the novelty wore off, it has no traction)

3. At the same, time, where I naively would identify Stephen’s possible weak spot, and where Pat is very persuasive to me: your field is too early, it seems to me, to deny that you are *anthropologists.* You must embrace your anthropological selves. (where proper practice does not exist!) Pat seems very concerned with what actually works for users. Surely you are in this business! An anthropologist, i think, is non-judgmental: he/she first figures out what works for people (with no ideology). I suggest your field is sufficiently new that, when Pat values playfulness, if it works, it might be core. I am in elearning - not so different from infoViz - and, engagement is the only thing i really care about, if “bling my graph” elicts a laugh that supports engagement, then I say it’s brilliant design.

but in any case, you all look like progress to me

David Harper, CFA, FRM

By Stephen Few. December 3rd, 2007 at 10:46 am


I agree with everything you said. If “vividness” is defined as characteristics that make something memorable, then vividness can play an important role in information visualization. It ceases to do so, however, if it is applied gratuitously. For instance, if bright colors are being used to make something vivid, this will only work if only specific data that especially deserve to be remembered are encoded in bright colors. If everything is bright, then nothing in particular will be remembered. If “playfulness” refers to “factors that make exploration fun and engaging”—along with sense-making as well I assume—then playfulness is definitely useful. Once again, however, this is only true of playfulness that actually engages people in the process of exploration and sense-making. If it distracts from this process, it ceases to be useful. I believe that when one is engaged in exploration and sense-making, the experience is most fun and engaging when the software disappears and the person is able to become completely absorbed in thinking about the data. Software that gets out of the way can help people experience what Csikszentmihalyi calls “flow.” On the other hand, software that calls attention to itself or to anything that isn’t data will hinder this flow experience. Reeves and Nass, the authors of “The Media Equation,” perhaps ventured into the realm of disruptive fun and engagement when they assisted in creating the software product “Microsoft Bob.” Remember Microsoft Bob? It didn’t last, probably because it got in the way of what people were trying to accomplish when they used their computers.


By Karen Tricomi. December 13th, 2007 at 1:21 pm

Like Dan G., I’m a newbie to this field and am finding this a fascinating discussion. Although both sides of the debate have compelling arguments, I agree with Dan G.’s perspective - in the world of daily operations, executives are not as interested in the impact or retention of information as in the immediacy and ease of understanding in the moment. The data will change tomorrow/next week/next quarter, so the long-term effect of the presentation is less effective than a low-noise factor in my experience. However, if I’m trying to learn something to store in my memory banks for an indefinite time, a more vivid/playful/ impactful visualization might make it easier to retain. Could a case be made that the presentation style of information should be customized to the purpose the information is serving, i.e., long-term training and learning vs. disposable data for immediate, one-time consumption?

By Stephen Few. December 13th, 2007 at 1:29 pm


What you allude to at the end of your comments reflects my argument in a nutshell: A presentation should be customized to the purpose the information is serving and it should be designed to serve that purpose in the most effective way possible.

Thanks for adding your thoughts to the discussion.


By Autumn. November 19th, 2009 at 1:31 am

Give a man a fish, he’ll eat for a day. Teach a man how to fish, he’ll eat for a lifetime.