InfoVis 2007 kicked off with a keynote presentation from Matt Ericson, Deputy Graphics Director at the New York Times, titled “Visualizing Data for the Masses: Information Graphics at The New York Times.” This is obviously a topic near and dear to my heart, as a publication like the New York Times represents a space where the average “layperson” (as in visualization non-expert) is most likely to encounter information visualization.
Fernanda Viegas has blogged about the talk already on behalf of infosthetics, so I don’t want to repeat too much of what she had to say, but I did want to emphasize a few points that Matt made in his presentation (and afterwards).
As Fernanda mentions, one of Matt’s main points was that they approach infovis primarily as journalists, and that they see their work as “storytelling for the masses.” At the same time, he expressed one of their design principles as “show, don’t tell,” constantly asking themselves where they can show readers what’s happening rather than telling them in words. Through a bunch of examples, Matt described the design challenges they face in producing these pieces, including extremely short publication deadlines, readability issues (his point about scatterplots was really interesting -- apparently readers have a hard time understanding a two dimensional graph where time is not on the x (horizontal) axis), and issues of Tufte-style “honest portrayal,” where they must pay attention to whether the visualization gives the “right impression” of the data. His example of this latter point revolved around producing political maps (“red vs. blue” population maps, etc.) whose visual presentation reflects the actual statistics (for instance, he pointed to red vs. blue maps of the last presidential election results, by county, that show the US as primarily “red,” despite a much more even distribution in the popular vote).
Also interesting, despite their “show, don’t tell” mantra, was Matt’s emphasis on the usefulness of embedding textual descriptions within the visualizations themselves to help guide users, as well as the usefulness of combining different types of visualizations to reinforce the data (for instance, coupling a more “complex” image with a simpler one). Related to this was his suggestion that “presets” or “shortcuts” in to the data are particularly important to interactive visualizations, where users may be overwhelmed by the number of options on the interface. This directly reflects my experience developing educational visualization tools in the past.
So, after hearing all of this, I was really curious to know if Matt’s group, or the NYT in general does any analysis on the effectiveness (or even popularity) of their info-graphics. I got a chance to talk with him at length last night, where he indicated that while they would like to, they haven’t tried to collect that kind of information in a formal way. Being so restricted by deadlines, he described their operation as very much “by the seat of their pants,” where they mainly use their own editors at usability testers. He did suggest that they are trying to collect more statistics with their online interactive work, as it much easier to capture information about what their readers are spending time on. I would be really interested to see the results of that kind of survey. Either way, the principles their team employs seem to be quite effective, as they haven’t received majorly negative feedback about the graphics they produce. This surely speaks to the particular considerations of designing visualization “for the masses.”
Matt has published his presentation slides at his website, http://www.ericson.net/.
More InfoVis to report on later, but my internet connection is spotty at the hotel, so it may take a while.