Goal oriented visualizations?
Some of the fine fleur of information visualisation in Europe gathered in Brussels today at the Visualizing Europe meeting. Definitely worth to follow the links of the speakers on the program! Twitter has a good trace of what was discussed. Revisit offers a rather different view on that discussion than your typical twitter timeline.
In the Q&A session, Paul Kahn asked the Rather Big Question: how do you choose between different design alternatives for visualisation? Both Moritz and David answered that they rely on “Ego Driven, self centred” design 😉 , i.e. they consider the options and decide. No user studies. No feedback from peers. (They do get quite a bit of community reaction after they publish their visualisations and Moritz does do careful tracking of how people actually use them.)
In their case, that answer is sort of OK. But, in general, it is less than satisfactory for me: in usability engineering, “the user is always right” and “the developer is not the user”. I am not so sure that the information visualisation community sees things that way: there is a bit of the “we are artists and we are too sophisticated for ordinary folks” and “if they don’t understand it, they should take an information literacy course” attitude there. (Or should I include myself in that crowd and write “here” rather than “there”?)
Yet, if visualisations are to have any effect beyond the initial “wow” factor, it would be useful to have more clarity on what the intended goal is and how to assess whether that goal is achieved. Take Moritz’s wikipedia visualization for instance: admittedly, this looks good – it is actually beautiful. But Moritz mentioned that he thinks of himself as a “truth and beauty operator”. I wonder what kind of truth this visualization reveals? Do I use or read wikipedia differently afterwards?
What interests me these days is how we can connect visualization not only with meaning (truth, if you want), but with taking actions. This is very much in a “quantified self” approach, where for instance a visualisation of your eating habits can help you to lead a healthier life, or where a visualisation of your mobility patterns can help you to explore alternative modes of transport, etc. Such visualisations would be successful if they trigger the intended behaviour. That would be something one can measure, as in “people smoke less when they use this visualisation” or “people discover new publications based on this visualisation” (we’re actually evaluating such an application) or “people run more using this visualisation” etc.
It would be really useful if we could draw up some guidelines to design effective goal oriented visualisations. As an example, I guess it’s kind of useful to be able to visualise progress towards a goal – or lack thereof. If you want to run further, a visualisation can help you to assess whether you’re making progress. Or if you want to spend less time doing email, a simple visualisation can help. Another guideline could relate to social support, that enables you to compare your progress with that of others. Etc.
Do you know any good examples of information visualisation that support a specific goal? Do you have any suggestions for design guidelines that can help to create more and more useful such visualisations?
(And did I mention that I need to devote at least an afternoon soon to trying out Impure?)