Understanding data visualization is in the eyes of the beholders

Data visualization is intended to help people understand data better. Graphs, charts and maps are all forms of data visualization, as are the infographics that illustrate many news stories and research reports. The human brain processes visual information better than it processes text, as expressed by the adage “a picture is worth a thousand words.” 

However, creators of data visualizations currently have little or no information about how well their audiences can read or understand the visualizations they employ. Current guidelines based on research are stringent and overly generalized, says UMSI assistant professor Matthew Kay. This not only reduces the number of possible chart types creators use, but it can also disadvantage some readers whose backgrounds and experiences may affect their ability to effectively extract information from the visualizations they see.

Kay and his co-Principal Investigator Lane Harrison (Worcester Polytechnic Institute) have received a grant of $238,848 from the National Science Foundation to study audiences for visual data that could provide designers with better insights when they seek to visualize data.

The three-year study will focus on answering three questions:

•To what extent do individuals differ in their ability to perform basic tasks with data visualizations? 

•What is the relationship between low-level visualization performance and higher-level assessments such as visualization literacy and cognitive abilities? 

•How does the way we present visualization experiment results shape the design recommendations researchers and designers infer from them? 

The researchers expect that their research will provide better means for assessing and communicating an audience’s ability to perform basic visualization tasks, which will enable visualization creators to better navigate the growing number of studies and design recommendations from the visualization community.

Posted October 23, 2018