As an expressive means of communication, visualizations have much to offer the research community. Michael Schrage would like to see more attention placed on how visualizations can be used as platforms to facilitate wider conversations and interactions. While accessibility and intelligibility of complex information is important, a truly transformative visualization can give users a new way to view each other, as well as the data.
“A picture is worth a thousand words” may be a lovely cliché, but it’s exactly the wrong way to view visualization. As admirable as the craft, message, and data-driven artistry of the Edward Tuftes and Stephen Fews may be, successful visualization is less about effectively conveying complex information than creatively provoking human interaction. Infographics should (quite literally) be seen more as interfaces to interpersonal engagement than aesthetically pleasing packages of numbers and analytics. The essential question smart “visualization” and “visualizers” should address is not, “What’s the best and most accessible way of presenting the data?” but “What kinds of conversation and interaction should our visualization evoke?”
Visualization works best when generating situational awareness and contexts that otherwise wouldn’t exist. Like the best maps and GPS, they simultaneously provide a sense of where you are and insight into where you might want to go next. Individual epiphany defers to interpersonal interaction: Is this where we really are? Given what we see here, do we really want to go there? Visualizations support and enhance teams and teamwork.
So I cannot overstress the power and importance of visualizations as portals. I will never forget an Excel-enabled experience almost 20 years ago when a presenter toggled from histograms to pie charts to cells to macros to the raw data tables in a product performance review. Visualizations weren’t static summaries; they were digitally dynamic gateways into more detailed data (and the statistics manipulating them). The visualizations synthesized, but not at the price and cost of denying deeper and more granular views.
The resulting conversations were, of course, immeasurably enriched by this approach. Questions and disagreements could be addressed at whatever layer — or layers — of visual representation was most fit for the purpose. The multiple visualizations were integrated, interoperable, and inspiring. They effectively facilitated a collaborative interaction that would otherwise not have been possible.
More recently, the Consortium for Advanced Simulation of Light Water Reactors (CASL) visualizations had a huge impact on an innovation workshop because they facilitated a cross-functional design conversation that the organization’s existing visualization portfolio could not. Why? Because the firm’s simulations were dedicated to modeling known problems instead of inspiring collaborative interaction. The CASL simulations effectively forced the organization to rethink how visualizations could be used as platforms to create common understanding across the enterprise rather than as high-resolution tools to support technical specialists.
I’ve (literally) seen this visualization influence recapitulated in hundreds of other design and innovation environments. Instead of pretty PowerPoints and charismatic keynotes engineered around the ideal of optimizing information presentation, visualization was treated as a compelling invitation to engage and interact with both the material and each other. In other words, visualization was less about presentation than UX — user experience. Visualization was managed as a UX design challenge rather than how best to put on a data-driven show.
Is this unduly harsh or cynical? No. Look at Gardiner Morse’s excellent post on “crap circles” or Dylan Lathrop’s post on peak infographics. The information/presentation design bias taints the overwhelming majority of visualization efforts. That’s both a pity and a problem. Until visualizers embrace the design imperative that their visualizations should be as much about facilitating interaction as conveying information, they’re doomed to be high-resolution underachievers.
Yes, accessibility, understanding, and insight are the wonderful products of wonderful visualizations. But truly transformative visualizations invite people to touch, stroke, and go deeper into the data that underlie them. They engage. They encourage engagement. They give their users a new way to view each other, as well as the data.
Is a picture worth a thousand words? Sure. Maybe even ten — or a hundred! — thousand. But you want to make sure they’re the right words. Don’t view visualization as a medium that substitutes pictures for words but as interfaces to human interactions that create new opportunities for new value creation.
This was originally published on the Harvard Business Review blog and is reposted with permission.
Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Impact of Social Science blog, nor of the London School of Economics.
Michael Schrage is a research fellow with MIT Sloan School’s Center for Digital Business, a blogger on the Harvard Business Review site and the author of the ebook ‘Who Do You Want Your Customers To Become?’ [HBS Press 2012]