Tuesday, September 11, 2007

information and aesthetics

One of the dimensions of information visualization that I’m particularly interested in is the impact of aesthetics on the design of functional visualization tools “for the people.” This is basically the age-old debate of form versus function, or beauty and expressiveness versus practicality and usability, or any of the variations on that theme. As someone who was trained in both visual art and physics, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this (ostensible) opposition in various contexts over the years (as anecdotal evidence, I consider most of my work here to be “aesthetic remixes” of versions I developed for more formal educational purposes). It’s also a fairly subtle one for a number of reasons, but particularly because the “first principles” of aesthetics aren’t as easily categorized as those of other fields that inform information visualization design (graphic design, perception/cognition, semiotics, HCI, etc.), making it difficult to establish what works and what doesn’t.

Last week I criticized Twitter Blocks on the grounds that it was lacking in usability, despite being aesthetically compelling. Tom Carden’s response (as one of the designers of Twitter Blocks) got me thinking more about the role of aesthetics in visualization once again. While I understand and agree with his position completely (visualizations need not necessarily be useful to be interesting), I’m mostly concerned with the “traditional” goals of information visualization, and the ways in which we can develop a more robust literacy for them. In that sense, I’m inclined to promote usability over aesthetic novelty. That said, what’s clear to me from examples out “in the wild” like Twitter Blocks and the DiggLabs stuff (I don’t mean to pick on Stamen’s work, it’s just that they’re one of the most ubiquitous popular visualization designers out there right now), and the discussion surrounding them, is that the aesthetics are compelling: In walking the line Tom describes in his post, Stamen has produced a body of visualization work that both excites (“Beautiful!”) and frustrates (“Useless!”). This suggests that incorporating an aesthetic approach to visualization design can be beneficial in its capability to engage users, but that taking it “too far” (whatever that means in specific cases) may be counter-productive if we are looking to develop a type of standard visualization literacy. The big and difficult question, then, is determining what aesthetic considerations we can take away from these and other examples that will support this goal.

I recently discovered a set of research papers by Adrew Vande Moere (of infosthetics fame) and his grad students at the University of Syndey, Nick Cawthon and Andrea Lau, that attempt to address this question:

The first begins to describe the role of aesthetics in visualization, arguing that it is as important an influence on user experience as the more traditional components of information visualization. Parallels are drawn to the aesthetics of cinematography, choreography and staging as a means to streamline a visual presentation. An appeal is made to the importance of aesthetics in producing effective information narratives, in developing useful visual metaphors, and in using interaction to encourage “play.” I agree with all of these points, and I think they are particularly relevant to the concept of “information visualization for the people.” Part of what makes a visualization successful (and, presumably, effective) is its ability to engage the user, and I’m certain these techniques, in principle, promote engagement. I spent a lot of time thinking about designing playful tools when I was working on educational visualizations and simulations for teaching physics and biology. The trick was to make them forget they were learning!

That said, while I think this is the right way to frame an analysis of aesthetics in visualization, the problem in its application is usually one of degree. The informed “use of aesthetics” (a difficult to define concept) can go a long way towards improving effectiveness, but without a measured approach, you run the risk of interfering with the effective presentation of your data. Ignoring the designer’s intent, this is my critique of many of the more popular visualizations on the web right now: too great a focus on beauty and not enough on functionality. This is fine for work intended to be artistic, but it defies the development of a more functional visualization literacy.

The second paper addresses this issue by categorizing various “sub-genres” of visualization along an aesthetic spectrum:

I was less convinced by this analysis, for a couple of reasons: First, it seemed more concerned with promoting “information aesthetics” as a valid visualization field (that “reaches beyond” information visualization) than with providing concrete details of what its benefits actually are. It establishes a large “grey area” to be defined as information aesthetics, but left me wondering about the nuances within that space. Second, I’m not entirely convinced that it makes sense to divide visualization-space in to these vague categories; I’m more inclined to divide the space in to two broad categories (information visualization, and “information-based art”), rather than confusing the taxonomy with all these sub-genres (that sort of categorization reminds me of the taxonomy of electronic music). Some of the rhetoric in the paper suggests that designers decide to produce work within these sub-genres, rather than the work being assigned to a genre by virtue of its characteristics. If I’m being very cynical, it almost sounds like a broad space is being carved out to support information design failures; if an information visualization isn’t coherent enough to be effective, don’t worry – it was supposed to be an information aesthetic visualization.

The third paper was the most interesting. As the title suggests, it presents research aimed at quantifying the effects of aesthetics on visualization usability. The researchers devised a web-based survey that asked participants to answer information-retrieval questions based on a series of visualizations characterized by (presumably) varying levels of aesthetic attractiveness. They were primarily measuring response time; in particular, erroneous response time (the amount of time spent on a question before getting it wrong) and latency of task abandonment (the amount of time a user spends on a question before opting to “give up”). Their theory was that increased aesthetic quality would decrease these times. Without going in to the details, they were right. The visualization deemed most attractive by the participants generally performed best in the survey. Very interesting to see this quantified in some way.

However, to be fair, I felt there were several issues with their survey (which I took myself the other day), most of which are recognized in the paper. The most obvious had to do with the fact that the visualizations used in the survey were all static, non-interactive images. A few of them were snapshots from three dimensional systems, which really require interactivity to make sense of them (by allowing users to rotate the structures, etc.), so those got a raw deal. But even for the 2D ones, viewing static images isn’t representative of information visualization. Similarly, despite the fact that the test visualizations were representatives of actual visualization systems, they didn’t strike me as representative of the sorts of visualizations (information, or information aesthetic) that are out in the wild these days. These were pretty conservative as far as aesthetic detail goes, and the use of a consistent color palette reinforced this. Oddly enough, this choice actually struck me as representative of the sorts of “standardization” I’ve been promoting to encourage popular literacy. I would be really interested to see a similar survey involving actual examples from the web. The measure of aesthetic is qualitative enough that enforcing consistency between survey examples seems unnecessary and maybe counter-productive.

Another possibly significant issue was the participant demographic. It wasn’t a randomly selected sample – the survey was primarily advertised to people in the design community, who most likely have a higher than average visual literacy. If we’re trying to determine the effects of aesthetics on visualization usability, these probably aren’t the best people to survey. Also interesting to note was that nearly half of the participants in the survey did not complete it; their data wasn’t used in the results.

Finally, I was slightly amused by what almost sounds like an admission of bias in their conclusion: “The original purpose of this research was to increase the awareness of the positive role and purpose of aesthetic in the design of data visualization techniques.” Does this mean anything? Who knows!

In any case, these were all great reads. They’re not long, so I encourage anyone interested in these questions to look them over. While I’m not totally convinced by some of their conclusions, I’m glad that someone is asking them. Aesthetics can undoubtedly inform a visualization literacy, but nailing down how much is too much is definitely tricky.


andrea said...

Hi Mike,

Thanks for the comments. (It's also been nice following your newly established blog!)

'...than with providing concrete details of what its benefits actually are.'

At this stage, we can only supposition and make claims about the benefits of information aesthetics, based on theory, and on the works of others (which we reference).

'It establishes a large “grey area” to be defined as information aesthetics, but left me wondering about the nuances within that space.'

Work is going into empirically studying this exact problem! What is it that makes something information aesthetic? What can we learn from the process of creation, from the reactions of users?...

'I’m more inclined to divide the space in to two broad categories (information visualization, and “information-based art”)'
What information aesthetics deals with is the space in between.

'...if an information visualization isn’t coherent enough to be effective, don’t worry – it was supposed to be an information aesthetic visualization.'

Sorry - this I have to disagree with, and perhaps it is just a matter of interpretation. (I hope not everyone thinks this!!) The concept of information aesthetics is supposed to (we have yet to prove our claims) augment infovis. It is not an excuse for 'bad infovis', but a positive concept to be explored, exploited to its greatest capacity, and integrated into infovis.

mike_d said...

Hi andrea,

Thanks for reading! Despite my criticisms, I'm really fascinated by the work you guys are doing, and I'd be interested in hearing about any new insights you come up with. Do you guys have a website with more information that I could check out?

I'd be particularly interested in how you are developing your empirical approach. Have you conducted any other surveys like the one described in Nick Cawthon's paper? I'm curious because I've been contemplating the idea of developing a survey as part of my own research. Although so far I only have in mind a media studies-style "ethnographic" approach, and I'm not sure it makes sense. Are "visualization users" a significant demographic??

As for your last point, I understand completely. As I mentioned, I was being pretty cynical when I made those comments. Having had a foot in the "art world" at times, I always get nervous when I sense that "artistic vision" (and ego) are threatening to overpower rational discourse. Heh!

Anyways, I would love to keep the conversation going. Please feel free to keep posting, or shoot me an email at mdanzig(at)mit.edu.