EKV – PhD thesis Annemarie Quispel

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Data for all. How professionals and non-professionals in design use and evaluate information visualizations
PhD Thesis – Annemarie Quispel
Tilburg University / Avans University of Applied Sciences, 2016

Thus far, the study of Information visualization mostly focused on visualizations allowing an accurate and efficient reading of data. Numerous studies have investigated features that enhance their effectiveness. Far less is known about what makes a ‘good’ information visualization for a broad audience. What criteria do designers use for such visualizations? To what extent do they consider adequacy, understandability, and attractiveness important? And what is the effect of using novel visualization techniques and pictorial elements on their understandability and attractiveness? Similarly, little is known about the way the general public understands and appreciates these visualizations. To what extent do they share opinions with the designers about the importance of clarity and attractiveness, and about what makes a visualization attractive?
This is what this thesis is about: information visualizations for a broad audience: how are they produced, understood, and evaluated by their pro­ducers, design experts, and by their audience, laypeople in design? What are the main criteria, and (how) do these criteria differ for designers and lay­people? The visualizations we focus on differ in degrees of abstractness, with a main focus on the visualization of abstract graphs, visualizing quantities. In the remainder of this chapter we first discuss the societal and theoretical relevance of the thesis. Subsequently, we describe the methods we used and introduce the studies that are described in the remaining chapters.

In this thesis, we address four research questions regarding data visualizations for a broad audience:
1 What is the importance of functional and aesthetic criteria in judging visualizations?
2 What makes popular information visualizations attractive?
3 What makes information visualizations usable?
4 How do designers and laypeople differ in their understanding and aesthetic preferences?
In this section we discuss the societal relevance of this research.

Investigating information visualization is relevant for a number of reasons, which are discussed more elaborately below: enormous amounts of data need to be visualized for the general public; there is a lack of knowledge about the way ‘popular’ visualizations are understood and appreciated; information design and designers are increasingly important, but little is known about design practice. Gaining more insight into information visualization would be beneficial for design education and practice, and, eventually, the general public.

People are facing massive amounts of information every day. Architect and graphic designer Richard Saul Wurman (2012) states that much of this infor­mation concerns raw data that somehow need to be transformed to become meaningful information. Data have become widely available, thanks to rapid developments in information technology, but also thanks to journalists and bloggers demanding freedom of data, and to governments striving for trans­parency, as data journalist Simon Rogers of The Guardian describes (2012). For example, Barack Obama opened a portal for government data in 2009, offering public access to over 188.989 data sets (www.data.gov) about business, education, climate, health, et cetera. This initiative has been followed by several other countries, including the UK. For example, the national newspaper The Guardian offers the full datasets behind its news stories, which attract a million page impressions a month.

Much of the data that we are bombarded with can best be understood by visualizing them (Yau, 2011). This is being done by an increasing number of designers, including many experts in graphic design. The term ‘graphic design’ refers to both the act and the final product of conceiving, planning, selecting, organizing and shaping a series of elements – usually a combination of text and images – for the creation and presentation of visual communication (Frascara, 2004). The term ‘graphic’ in graphic design refers to the printing techniques used to produce and distribute products such as books, magazines, news­papers and posters, but graphic design also encompasses a wide range of activities and products typical for the ‘digital age’, like the design of websites, apps, and information visualization. We see a growing number of information visualizations being published in mass media. We also see a growing variation of such visualizations. Designers, whose job is the ‘conception and realization of new things’ (Cross, 1982), do not confine themselves to conventional visualization techniques (e.g. bar and pie graphs), but develop novel ways of visualizing information (as in Figure 3). The question then arises to what extent these novel types of information visualizations are understood and appreciated by their audience of laypeople. What makes them effective for everyday tasks to be performed by a broad, non-expert audience, such as assessing which political party has won the elections, or judging how many more refugees are going to be allowed in the EU compared to a year before, as in Figure 1? Gaining insight into the way these visualizations are understood and appreciated by their audience would be beneficial for designers and, eventually, for their audience.

Little is known about designers’ ways of working. Designers have a great deal of responsibility in the way information is visualized to inform a general audience about, and to engage them in developments that affect their life and society. Moreover, design has become a significant economic sector. According to the Dutch central bureau of statistics (CBS) there are about 47.000 registered designers in the Netherlands in 2007, about half of whom received design education, mostly in graphic design. Unlike scientists, graphic designers are not used to document their ways of working. The graphic design field lacks a self-definition that can support and integrate research (Storkerson, 2006). Further, designers are used to work on the basis of intuition and experience, rather than explicit knowledge (Polanyi, 1966; Cross, 1982; Schön, 1983). Designers, just like most other professional practitioners, are not used to explicitly document their methods and professional practice. As Friedman (2003) states, designers could benefit from the insights that studies into the graphic design practice can provide, as these could enable them to move from solving one unique case after another to broader explanatory principles and solutions for similar kinds of problems.

This thesis contributes to a better understanding of the designers’ practices, of the quality criteria used by designers and their audiences, and of design characteristics determining the usability and attractiveness of such information visualizations.

Download: PDF-version of thesis Data for All

For further questions, to contact Annemarie Quispel or to order the printed publication:

Email the Expertcentre EKV or call the EKV-office: Wilma Diepens – +3188 5 257 370 (monday to wednesday).

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