Thursday, November 15, 2007

InfoVis impressions, part 4: "Infovis as Seen by the World Out There"

This is the fourth (and final) part of my impressions of InfoVis 2007. Click here for part 3.

UPDATE: Stephen Few has made a written version (PDF) of his capstone presentation available on his website.

The final “for the masses” presentation at InfoVis was Stephen Few’s capstone, “InfoVis as Seen by the World Out There.” In it he discussed his observations on “the big picture view of what’s going on in infovis,” and how the lay-public, who “desperately need what we have to offer,” perceives (or misperceives) the field of information visualization. He argued that the outsider’s perspective is based on poor, primitive examples of visualization, and tried to motivate the audience to address the situation.

Rather than going in to too much more detail, I wanted to defer to Joe Parry’s impression of the talk, because it matches my own almost exactly:

On a separate topic I found Stephen Few's capstone talk rather unsettling - I understand why he is so passionate about designing clear visuals, but sometimes that passion can err on the abrasive side. And that style won't endear the visualization community to the world out there. I also think he underestimates the power of playfulness and fun in reaching out to an audience - come on - Swivel's option to 'bling your graph' is just funny! Another worry is that the very Spartan style of visuals he favours actually imposes an aesthetic in its own right, for all of its good intentions and intelligent rationale. We should accept some people just won't like that aesthetic.

Over the course of his talk, Few showed many “bad” examples of infovis from the web. Some of them I agreed were pretty terrible (including some of the new charting features in Excel), but most I felt he was dismissing without trying to understand what is useful about them (in addition to his criticism of Swivel, he wrote off the Ambient Orb, and the list of infovis examples recently published by Smashing Magazine). What was clear, as Parry alludes to, is that Few’s conception of popular infovis design is particularly hard-line -- more about telling the masses how to display information the “right” way, rather than thinking about how non-experts might interact with information differently and with different needs. This is understandable given his usual focus on design for the business intelligence community, but I think that attitude does a disservice to the goal of popularizing information visualization. I’m not arguing that something like the Ambient Orb is a fantastic example of visualizing information, but the fact that (some) people find it compelling suggests that there is something engaging about its presentation. Rather than writing it off as useless, why not try to figure out how to incorporate its engaging qualities in to more “sophisticated” visualization systems?

I wholeheartedly agree with Few’s assertion that the infovis community would do well to consider the scope of impact their work has, and I obviously believe that the field of information visualization can help “the world out there,” but I didn’t find the rhetoric of his talk particularly encouraging. On the one hand, he promotes bringing infovis “to the masses,” but on the other his conception of that process feels a bit too evangelical. Everything about his presentation revolved around showing “outsiders” why their intuition about infovis is wrong. If our goal is to produce infovis that makes sense to these non-experts, I don’t think this mentality is constructive.

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