Recently, I saw the largest concentration of iPad users in the world, controlled a computer screen with my eyes, and learned about our looming robotic future. No, Apple doesn’t have a technology lab on the moon, but I did attend CHI 2010 (short for Computer Human Interaction - the entire program along with papers and authors are referenced here). I left with a bit bigger toolkit and plenty of research to consider further. One such effort investigating chart junk has been reviewed by EagerEyes’ Robert Kosara. I share his enthusiasm for research in visualization, but let’s look more closely at some issues the paper raises and consider how these findings fit into the goals of visualization.
Nothing gets information visualization designers’ feathers more ruffled than the thought of junky charts being more desirable than "Tufte-compliant" charts. I was skeptical, to say the least, in attending a presentation by Scott Bateman for a paper entitled, Useful Junk? The Effects of Visual Embellishment on Comprehension and Memorability of Charts. (The title is a bit misleading in that the paper is really about embellishments and illustration - not so much traditionally poor structural graphics often considered common "chart junk.")
(Example of embellished vs. plain chart with same data, from the paper)
The aesthetic treatment of data presentation is a long-time debate, and Scott came all the way from Canada to answer the question: Should we use chart junk? The answer is an emphatic "maybe." The goal of the study was to look at interpretation accuracy and long-term recall, and the papers says,
our results question some of the premises of the minimalist approach to chart design.
Make charts Memorable.
Skipping the gritty details of the study, here are the findings of a provoking illustration with data embedded compared to an boring, "plain" chart:
- more memorable over the long-term;
- perceived as having more value and sense of chart bias; and
- most enjoyable and easiest to remember.
More memorable is better, right? The question we should be asking is, better than what. Of course, more memorable is better than less memorable, but at what cost? And what do we really want people to remember? It’s doubtful the best way to drum up interest in data is by making it light up and do a dance to feed the public’s already marketing heavy information diet.
Your data as is mostly marketing if it looks like this: GOOD.is | The Richest and Poorest Neighborhoods
Fully embellished charts
- Draws attention, memorable imagery
- Little analytical thinking needed, wider audience
- Endless diversity
- Creative exploration
- Graphics and illustration heavy
- It looks and feels glossy so people will treat it with the bias of a magazine or commercial TV ad
- Little data depth
- Non conclusive, likely not actionable
- Few standards, wild chart organization
- Production costs
- Little research, relatively cheap
- Illustration / Graphic artist talent required
Perhaps one’s attention is more likely to be drawn to these embellished charts if they are engaged in an entertaining or passive ritual, like watching TV, browsing the web, or shuffling through a newspaper. Perhaps they get the same personal impact as the funny pages. We should consider a greater sense of bias or value message is introduced through this style of data presentation (as confirmed by the study), and that can be detrimental to a viewer’s trust. It isn’t that imagery doesn’t have a place in the same conversation with data, but there are better ways to go about drawing attention than applying illustrations to data points.
In the data presentation arena, we definitely want data to be memorable, but even more so we want data to be actionable; therefore, valuable data remains the attraction.
Make charts Actionable.
Would you say this graphic is more or less plain than the example "plain" chart taken from the research paper earlier in the post? Would you say its more or less actionable?Â
A chart is actionable if it answers enough questions of its viewer to instigate a meaningful decision or reaction to information presented. Therefore, charts are only actionable when the right information is presented to the right people with the right visual communication.Â
Edward Tufte describes the use of this graphic by the New York Times that accompanied a data dense table along with a news column on the subject. It’s a simple point: in order to present meaningful, compelling, or personally motivating information, there either needs to be exactly the right data presented, given the context of the data and person, or enough dimensions and slices of data to be meaningful to a broader range of questions and needs. Supporting textual content always helps to tell the story, which builds the viewers mental model - thereby, making the data more understandable.
No non-data graphics
Minimized distractions from data focus, no graphics or imagery suggesting bias,
little visual appeal unless the data density is high (which can feel overwhelming)
Sufficient data-depth emphasis
Requires more patience or experience from viewer.
No illustration talent required
Research time and resources required, relatively expensive
The problem with embellishments as a primary style for getting the public engaged with data is that it continues to suggest that truly understanding how data impacts their world is beyond common thought or interest. The dimensions are minimal and value statements dominate.
But value statements aren’t always bad. Sometimes when you’re saying so little with an information-starved chart, its better to come out and say the point you’re trying to make with a single data point. Like this beautiful example from goingtorain.com
Its Communications 101: say what you’re going to say, say it, and say what you said. When the information is somewhat clearly target and not exploratory in nature, this frank approach is often more effective. Embellished charts commonly stand alone with no supporting, meaningful story or conclusion. If the information is valid and valuable enough to be published, there should at least be enough effort to find and integrate a reliable source with more info to answer questions where the chart data left the viewer wondering.
Make charts Both.
When it comes to complicated information, stop treating it as if it can be polished nicely into a single chart and that will be sufficient to create understanding, motivation, and action. Charts make data visible and play off our innate human need to create a mental image of the information story we’re presented with. We need both visual attraction / definition and concrete factual data.
Illustration, graphics, and photography trigger emotion and interest in our right brain. They give us a chance to associate ideas and create mental connections to make sense of the world. Our right brain needs "embellishment" thinking to make connections.
Meanwhile, our left brain needs values, raw facts, and the ability to measure worth. Our left brain needs "plain chart" thinking to determine the cause and effect of connections; its interested in thinking about what really matters and impacts things at this moment.
There are few visualizations that even begin to approach the balance between imagery and data.
Example 1. The Tweet Tracker visualization is at least on the right track. One may say here that illustration is used as data points, but I would suggest the technique is appropriate here because the imagery is uniquely matched, within context, as another dimension to its data category.
Example 2. Embellishments come in diverse forms. You may have seen this presentation Al Gore gave on global warming. Notice what happens at 9:08 in the video as Al continues his commentary while riding a lift on stage up the side of the chart. Do you hear the background laughter? This kind of laughter is good. You know you’re audience is engaged. Duarte Design designed an embellished visual here to grab people’s attention and make the point memorable - alongside the data chart. This engaging visual device makes the data more memorable because the data is still the center of attention.
Visualization is simply the best language to create meaningful connections between data, thereby making it valuable. All charts are related to visualization, whether its good design or not. The conversation of whether embellishments are good or bad depends on many things, but the real question we should be asking is whether they are making your data more or less valuable. It is a fine thing to attract interest to data, but not when that is a device to overlook the real care needed in preparing sufficient information. Plain charts are fine also, but likely only for quick personal projects in excel where a mental model of the data connections are already well understood.
I’m thankful for Scott’s work with his colleagues on this research, and for people like Robert who also promote appreciation for the much needed research in visualization. The theme of graphical embellishment is thrown around so much in the visualization community that it rarely receives careful deliberation, and this paper starts a purposeful conversation. However, there is a long way in working towards conclusive goals.
Other visualization related papers presented at CHI 2010:
- Useful Junk? The Effects of Visual Embellsihment on Comprehension and Memorability of Charts.
- ManyNets: An Interface for Multiple Network Analysis and Visualization
- Individual Models of Color Differentiation to Improve Interpretability of Information Visualization
- High-Precision Magnification Lenses
- Crowdsourcing Graphical Perception: Using Mechanical Turk to Assess Visualization Design
- Integrating Text with Video and 3D Graphics: The Effects of Text Drawing Styles on Text Readability
- Animated UI Transitions and Perception of Time — a User Study on Animated Effects on a Mobile Screen