Can visualization influence people? I mean can we prove it?

by Enrico on April 13, 2011

in Thoughts

I just came back from a wonderful journey and experience. I was kindly invited by the IDRC (International Development Research Center) in Ottawa to give a talk about data visualization. The IDRC is a Canadian organization that funds research projects in developing countries for development purposes (don’t say humanitarian, I’ve learned the hard way it’s a different issue). Think climate change, health and medicine, agriculture, food, etc.

I will probably say more about my experience there and all the inspiring thoughts it generated in later posts, but here I want to focus on one.

My talk was very much focussed on the role of information visualization as a tool for your mind. A tool able to make abstract data visible so that you can use the marvelous capabilities of your eyes and cognition to understand what data contains. In a few words, I sold interactive visualization as a tool for making sense of data, learning new facts out of it and, hopefully, make discoveries.

I think I did a good job: they could follow what I was saying and I could catch some of them nodding while I was speaking. Usually this is a good sign. Everyone seemed to be happy with it. Then I finished my talk and the usual session with questions started. I had a couple of interesting good questions and then the one that is at the origin of this post.

Not exactly the right words used by the person at the microphone but well along these lines:

Ok, you said that visualization is good for this and that. Fine. But what we really need here is to make sure we can influence the decision makers (read politicians) by showing them the impact of our research. Since you are from research can you tell us if there are any studies showing visualization can influence decision makers?

My answer:

Mmm … oooh … mmm” (add lot of sweat in the meantime) “mmm … mmm”. “No. As far as I know there are no such studies.

How frustrating was it?! It was certainly very frustrating for me. But not because I could not answer to a question, I have big shoulders, but more because I felt we, as a community, have totally neglected simple questions with an enormous impact.

Now, it is totally possible that I am ignorant and that in fact these studies do exist. And if this is the case please let me know. Do you know of any studies that show how visualization can influence decision makers?

But if these studies are not yet there, I feel a bit miserable and I think we have to start researching these ideas.

Visualization as a communication vs. analysis device

But there is a more general issue here to consider. We people in research are very much into “selling” visualization as an analysis device. We love to say it helps sense making and that the holy grail is to help people make new discoveries. Fine. While I think this is true and laudable, even though a bit over-emphasized, I don’t understand why we have completely neglected the role of visualization as a communication tool.

It’s really surprising to me because if I have to compare what we do in research labs to what people out of labs do, there is a disproportion between the need of communicating with visualization and the amount of research we devoted to this issue. Frankly, I don’t know why. Maybe because communication is less fancy than discovery? Maybe because we tend to consider all those visualizations on the web and magazines just trivial stuff? I don’t know. But I know what I had in mind before this question was asked and something changed in my mind. I think our role as researchers is also to give answers to this type of questions.

What do you think? Did I miss the point? Are there hundreds of studies out there I don’t know yet? Or maybe I am too much concerned and it’s not that important after all? I’d love to know it.

P.S. You might have noticed my long break from posting in FILWD. This was due to heavy writing for the visweek deadline and my talk in Canada. Now I am back and I am ready to give even more than before. I hope you are still there waiting for my posts. If this is the case, thank you!

  • http://joaogoncalves.net Joao Gocnalves

    Hi Enrico,

    Excellent question, please let me know if you find or if anyone share with you some of this studies, I’m making a Master in Multimedia, and the Theme for my final thesis will be exactly that “How can Data Visualization improve communication”, and try to define all sort of names we find out there: Data Visualization, Information Visualization, information aesthetics, Scientific Visualization, infographics, etc…, still a lot of confusion about all this terms.

    Anything you’ll find just share it please, tks

    João

  • http://www.oomcreative.com Greg More

    It really depends on your audience. If the information visualization is a tool for insight it is most likely for a smaller internal business team – eg users with a known and shared business language. If one works on a public facing project then it’s about engagement and becomes more of an exercise in communicating to a wider audience. CEO’s know the value of engaging their audiences be it in house or external. But as you point out it would be great to have evidence based research about the influence of data visualizations in decision making processes as this is a key claim of this type of work.

  • http://twitter.com/daveanalyst @DaveAnalyst

    This report from HP contains some promising evidence, suggesting significantly greater retention through visual learning

    http://www.hp.com/large/ipg/assets/bus-solutions/power-of-visual-communication.pdf

  • http://blog.jochmann.me jakob

    You are right that research in the field of visual communication leaves a lot to be desired and the trend towards developing frameworks of visual language (and measuring its input) seems to still be in its infancy. (But because persuasion is so important in the VC world, there is lots of money being thrown at it.) Hence I would have to point to anecdotal evidence of this trend at first:

    Edward Tufte berating powerpoint and the communication paradigm associated with it might qualify as qualitative research (as opposed to quantitative measurement of impact). He also repeatedly points out chart junk. You know you have to start with some hypotheses about visual communication before designing test paradigms anyway, so why not use his. I dare say that some of his feelings about visual communication might actually be unjustified, but his claim that (bad) visualization in NASA presentations led to bad decisions would support the notion that there is correlation between decisions and visualization.

    There is surely some research done by the practitioners in the field of PR, marketing and “communication.” The success of An Inconvenient Truth to sway public opinion and thus decision makers is due in no small part to the expertise of Nancy Duarte and her team who created the original presentation. Anecdotal evidence again, but a starting point none the less. Incidentally Google Scholar nets the most promising hit for “visualization persuasion” in the paper of Sheppard, Shaw, Flanders and Burch about using visualization to combat climate change. http://74.125.155.132/scholar?q=cache:40z9LB4mXzQJ:scholar.google.com/+visualization+persuasion&hl=de&as_sdt=0,5

    But lastly, I must point out that I disagree with your framing of “communication” as the means of persuading people. When visualizations help people understand somplex data surely that is an act of communication, no? Lots of research on impact in terms of retention rates etc has been done in education sciences. I am sure that a clearer understanding of an issue helps decision makers make better decisions, so why would you discard this perspective?

  • http://infosthetics.com infosthetics

    If the question is “Do you know of any studies that show how visualization can influence ” (so without decision makers), then yes, they exist. Although they probably don’t go into the ‘how’, in terms of investigating the causal factors that drive the influence.

    Seems your issue is pointing more towards “knowledge visualization”, than true infovis (Remo A. Burkhard, 2004, “Learning from Architects: The Difference between Knowledge Visualization and Information Visualization”).

  • Ulrich

    Hi Enrico,
    my PhD proposal wraps around »Causality and Visual Analytics«.

    Perhaps you find this helpful:
    A classic example for the impact of a graph is John Snow’s (1855) study of cholera epidemics in London. He probably pioneered the difference-in-differences (DiD) idea,
    however, is also famous for drawing meticulous maps of the locations of deaths
    and water pumps, where he showed how cases of cholera clustered around
    contaminated pumps.

    Ciao,
    Ulrich

    p.s. Is this your comic? Or did I miss the attribution?

  • http://www.mdurwin.com Michael Durwin

    Why wait for someone else to do the research, do it now. How difficult can it be to run an A/B test comparing non-visualized content with visualized content? Even narrow it down to video versus images versus infographics. I don’t have the immediate network reach to gather the necessary amount of data but I’d be happy to work with others on developing the A/B tests, getting the word out, leveraging my local social media club and gathering data. Youv’e got my email.

  • http://www.visualisingdata.com Andy Kirk

    Great topic Enrico, I’ve posted my thoughts in a blog post here >>
    http://www.visualisingdata.com/index.php/2011/04/discussion-can-visualisation-influence-people-can-we-prove-it/
    Cheers!
    Andy

  • Zied M. Ouertani

    Hi Enrico – Hope you well and thanks for sharing your thoughts!
    This is indeed a very important question. It is currently our main focus on a research study we recently started aiming at understanding how visualisation influence business decision makers. And I agree with you, to my knowledge, there is no such studies.
    A brief description is provided in this website (please feel free to join the LinkedIn group) http://www.linkedin.com/groups?gid=3866131&mostPopular=&trk=tyah
    http://www.cambridgeservicealliance.org/research/service-performance-information.html

  • http://jeromecukier.net jerome cukier

    Hi Enrico, it’s good to see a new blog post!

    at last visweek there was a few presentations, talks and papers on visual storytelling, which is connected with that. telling a story is really about transmitting facts and ideas, and doing it interactively is getting the user commitment. So I think that storytelling, teaching, advocating causes or even selling stuff with data visualization is on the same continuum.

    my feeling however is that we dataviz practitioners are more focused on creating innovative or well-executed visualizations than ones which are effective in influencing audiences. also some consider it a sin to “lie with data” – when you are merely using perception phenomena to make your point.

    at the other end of the spectrum folks like advertising, communication or design firms, which don’t necessarily know anything about the theories of information visualization but which know how to reach audiences, are increasingly using data.

    I think the case where dataviz influence large audience will come from that space.

  • Enrico

    Thanks to all of you, I cannot express with words my gratitude for adding so much substance to this simple question I had.

    From your comments it looks like (1) it is a relevant issue and (2) there is not much research around yet (apart from a few bits).

    I understand this is a multifaceted issue and that I simplified it a lot in my post. I do agree that communication and influence are not the same thing and that communication in general has to be well researched (well this was the original intent of my post, but using the word “influence” was fancier :-)).

    I agree that people in marketing and related fields could be very much be interested in that and the critical issue of whether a visualization tells the truth is a key point. I remember saying in my talk that expecting that a visualization tells the truth is somewhat pointless because it’s just a tool. But this is a very critical issue that deserves another post.

    I am fascinated by the idea of running little experiments. Michael Durwin is right it won’t take much to run a preliminary pilot study with A/B testing ands see what one can learn. But I want to stress one thing: it’s not that much about demonstrating whether visualization influences people, surely it does, but more understanding through research all the rich aspects of it: when it does it, why it does it, what factors influence its success, etc … a whole PhD thesis can be built on top of that!

    Let’s keep the discussion open.

    Thanks again guys, I am learning so much from you.

  • http://ddo.li/ Anthony Hamelle

    Hi Enrico – and all the other commenters!

    This is a very interesting topic about which so many things can be said! Some of the comments point to relevant clues or pieces of research establishing the usefulness and influence of visualised pieces of information or data over non-designed ones.

    One of the first things that comes to mind is Florence Nightingale’s Diagram of the causes of mortality of the army of the East which had had an actual impact on British Government members and MPs who acted upon her visualisations (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Florence_Nightingale).

    Reacting to a thread of thought that appeared in the comments, I am however far more cautious when it comes to attributing data and dataviz with the ability to tell the truth. Ever since Aristotle we’ve known that public discussions and debates (in which ambits dataviz falls as it starts to exist as soon as it is shared in the public space) don’t seek to uncover truth but to oppose and reconcile differing views on any given issue, through dialectics and rhetorics. Most if not all published dataviz are expressing a point of view, not exposing a blunt truth.

    From a broader perspective, I guess it is useful to address the notion of opinion shaping, i.e. asking how individuals actually form their opinions, trough emotions and reason, through visual cues and data, combined… I wrote a blog post exploring this a few months ago:
    http://ddo.li/2010/12/25/shaping-opinions/

    Anthony

  • http://www.epicgraphic.com/ Mark from Epic Graphic

    Is influence really different from communication? If communication is ‘the difference that makes the difference’, is the difference it makes not equivalent to influence?

    Depending on the definitions employed you might choose to distinguish between communication and influence based on intent. But in terms of the net effect, I’d say communication and influence really are one of the same.

    If a piece of communication were to make no difference (and therefore not be classified as influence), it must therefore include no message from the receiver’s point of view, but could it still be classed as communication? (These are genuine questions – I am open to your thoughts)

    With regards to the point of discovery actually being communication, I agree, but I think the difference is the parties involved. Discovery is often derived from the interaction of the data and the agent, but becomes interpersonal communication when that agent then delivers the findings to others.

    Very thought provoking post and comment thread

  • http://www.thedatarevolution.com Dan Murray

    Here’s my “personal” study….when you show people things that provide insight…they don’t need a study…they get it.

  • Drew

    I think there is an important difference between communication and influence. It is possible to verify that a visualization is effectively communicating to someone. There are lots of user studies for specific visualization tools that test how effectively the tool helps communicate the data it represents.

    Whether the information that was communicated has any influence is entirely up to the individual though. It would be great to think that decision makers always make the correct choices for the information they have, but that may not always be true.

    Visualization cannot turn information into influence, all it can do is communicate. It is up to people to let that information influence their actions.

    • Enrico

      Drew, thanks for commenting. I think it very much depends on what you mean by “communication” but in my experience there are not many studies that show when and how it communicates information effectively. I mean, for communication to happen when need a person with a message who wants to transfer this message to another person through a channel, that is, the visualization. Do we mean the same thing? I am not aware of studies taking into consideration this scenario. Thanks.

    • Ben

      Drew – Do you see a difference between effectiveness and efficiency? I would argue that there is plenty of research to measure efficiency e.g. how quickly someone finds the piece of information whereas effectiveness is someone less researched and I would argue, much harder to measure.

      A data viz can be efficient, i.e. it quickly enables you to find information/insight, but if it is not the right information or insight it may not be effective. And in this thread, effectiveness seems to be the ability to influence.

      Another example that springs to mind are the “junk charts” and infographics so prevalent nowadays. I do not doubt that many of these would fail miserably in an academic efficiency test, yet some (not all) succeed by being effective in their ability to communicate and, potentially, influence.

  • Zied M. Ouertani

    Hi all,
    This is really an interesting discussion. To add a little to what have been said, here are few thoughts:
    - There are some other studies looking at visualising strategy using for example Road-mapping. This proved to be a good way in engaging decision-makers. But again this is very contextualised.
    - If one would have to test the influence of visualisation on a decision-maker, it would be more interesting to test/understand the “wrong/inadequate” behaviours caused by the visualisation rather than its positive influence. Bad examples are a good way to provide good practices.
    - Last but not least, this type of studies depends on the context where we are testing a visualisation. Few elements need to be considered: decision makers from single organisation vs. networked organisations; Cultural background of the decision-maker; Time allowed to make a business-critical decision; and so on.

  • Enrico

    You all added so many interesting ideas that I will try to collect them and summarize this all stuff in a new post. Please, if you have more to tell add it here. I will be working on it in a few days.

  • http://finiteattentionspan.wordpress.com/ Chris Atherton

    Hi Enrico,

    Love this post and the ensuing comment thread!

    Someone brought up PowerPoint; I and my colleague Andy Morley conducted some research a couple of years ago looking at whether using much sparser slides with a spoken narrative (i.e. not ‘Death By PowerPoint’) would improve people’s memory for the information. It did; Olivia Mitchell has a really nice summary of one of our experiments and our thoughts about the results here. So while this isn’t about persuasion as such, it does I guess illustrate that the way you present information is pretty important. (Hmm, we really must publish those results, actually; no kudos until our peers say we can have kudos ;)

    I’m a bit sceptical (or skeptical, if you prefer US English) about the HP paper that someone linked to; it leans rather heavily on the questionable assertion that we remember 80% of what we see and do, when actually the reality is more like this. That’s old data, but as far as I know, it’s still good; the trail to the HP paper data looks a little waterlogged.

    Andy’s background is in the psychology of decision-making, problem-solving and reasoning, and that’s a whole ‘nother interesting avenue to consider here. It’s not my area, but a lot of it seems to boil down to framing (how to show it, what to show/tell, what not to show/tell), and about why people get tripped up by relatively simple puzzles because the brain is trying to take short-cuts. In reasoning tasks, visualisation can be a huge asset: for example, drawing a Venn diagram is a quick route to solving syllogistic reasoning problems. There must be quite a bit of literature on this – will nudge Andy and see if he can recommend anything.

    Another observation: our friend and colleague Nick Oulton at m62 communications founded and continues to run a very successful business predicated on the basis that presentation skills is all about managing people’s attention. Constantly. Nick gets a lot of trade from sales guys who have to pitch for million-dollar contracts, and the testimonials suggest that his techniques work; the sales guys get the contracts. (Sure, there’s no control group there. But Nick knows his stuff and his method is solidly grounded in cognitive psychology.)

    Other anecdotal evidence: the enormous success of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, underpinned by Duarte Design’s exceptionally clear visuals. That has to be one of the best contemporary examples of taking confusing and overwhelming data (on climate change) and making it not only understandable, but also persuasive. Some of the most persuasive TED talks rely on simple visual demonstrations, like Jamie Oliver’s wheelbarrow full of sugar (from about 13:00 minutes in) – live-action data visualisation, if you like. (He also has a great, revealing graph at 02:10 to underscore his point and a WOAH!-inducing visual at around 08:00. It’s all data visualisation, and you can see it giving people pause.)

    But yeah, I’m a scientist, and I want data. I get lots of great feedback from students and people at sessions I facilitate and present at, saying “I find your stuff really easy to understand”. Nick gets satisfied customers. And it’s nice to point to Al Gore and Jamie Oliver and everyone else and say “that’s persuasive; look how many people went to see it/bought the book/watched the talk online” – but we don’t know how persuasive. So I’m really excited to read that people are starting PhDs and academic collaborations to look at the potential power of data visualisation.

    More, please! Also: how can I help? :)

  • http://www.discoveryexhibition.org/ Petra Isenberg

    Getting back to Enrico’s original question: Do you know of any studies that show how visualization can influence decision makers?

    A few years ago while I was meeting with some InfoVis folks over lunch we discussed exactly this question. There is no easy answer – and here I disagree with the comment from above about the A/B studies. This is because there are many different types and levels of influence and influence cannot necessarily be measured or observed while someone is using a tool or even directly after using a tool. This requires careful thought and study design.

    So we thought that it would be very valuable for the community to collect stories of where visualization has made an impact or influenced people – and the Discovery Exhibition was born. It is now a VisWeek event where people can submit stories about how their tools has had impact on the “real world” (= the world outside the research lab). We collect these stories on a dedicated website http://www.discoveryexhibition.org/ so that people can have a look at the variety of influence and impact that visualization has had (or still has).

    This year the event will run again and I encourage you strongly to submit if you have stories of impact. A large repository of impact stories is also a sort of “validation” of the influence visualization can have on people (although not in the form of a traditional user study).

  • http://visualizeit.wordpress.com Alark Joshi

    Great post and amazing comments!

    As I was reading about the impact of visualization on decision makers, I couldnt help but remember the famous map of Cholera incidences by John Snow and how that affected the ‘decision makers’ of the time. The map resulted in the immediate removal of the pump.

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  • http://www.darwineco.com Tom G.

    It’s clear that human faces, in situational images, can lead to emotional contagion.

    http://www.sciencedirect.com/science?_ob=ArticleURL&_udi=B6WNP-4T9CCTS-1&_user=10&_coverDate=11%2F15%2F2008&_rdoc=1&_fmt=high&_orig=gateway&_origin=gateway&_sort=d&_docanchor=&view=c&_acct=C000050221&_version=1&_urlVersion=0&_userid=10&md5=b07411ce493fa3e3a56ed6c5fd5ca5cb&searchtype=a

    Can data visualization alone stimulate that level of empathy?

    Infographics derive some of their emotive power from the tone of voice, facial expressions and body language of a presenter; or the context in which they are presented.

    In the face of infoglut, can words alone, combined with data visuals, maintain power to stimulate a value response?

    Motion video has become the way to attract and maintain attention.

    And does it not depend, also, on the extent to which an individual is predisposed, and emotionally connected, to one facet or another of a value equation?

    http://mattmckeon.com/facebook-privacy/

  • Anthony

    Thought I would give you some feedback on your article. I don’t know about research and frankly don’t care much about research. I care about the real world, life and business, with as much common sense whipped in as possible. So my take is as follows.

    I am a STRONG advocate of visualization. I don’t need research to tell me when I can take complex data and have it read like an idiot’s guide to whatever I am trying to make a point on, key decision makers pay attention, and definitely act on the data.

    One example is taking a portfolio of buildings and comparing average space utilization on a bar chart by building, from some base line. Line is average—above line is over—below line is under. Decision maker; “I want to know now about the ones over the base line”. Of course, this is a simple example with simple data. But it makes the point. The easier it is to understand our data, the easier it is to take action.

    As for politicians—they live in a world that is not tied to data—-at least in the US. They are tied to influence, money, power, etc…..so if you want to influence their decision making, you have to utilize those tools…….

  • Enrico

    @Chris thanks for all these detailed references and for your ideas. The whole idea of visualization supported communication is really multi-faceted and hard to grasp into its entirety. Your comments reminded me of a crucial aspect which is the skills or qualities of the presenter. Vis communication is often (always) driven by a real person communicating something. I remember Robertson et al. discussing this issue in their “Effectiveness of animation in trend visualization” (quite rare case of vis paper where communication is discussed with a certain level of detail). Also, I think it’s clear visualization has an influence but what we don’t know today, as you point out, are the mechanisms of it. This would be really interesting and useful.

    @Petra I think the study design per se is worth some deep thinking. I feel like the standard measures (if the not the methods) are totally inappropriate. But how cool (well … cool for us maybe :-)) would be to come up with a study design for such challenging questions? The discovery exhibition is a great thing and the VAST challenge too. They are the only examples I know where people can really see what we mean by sense making through interactive visualization.

    @Alark great to see you here!!! I totally agree John Snow’s map is a great example if not that … well I don’t know if you know it but the story of Dr. Snow persuading people with it seems to be not totally true :-( There is a whole book about it: http://www.amazon.com/Ghost-Map-Londons-Terrifying-Epidemic–/dp/1594482691/

    @Tom I agree … as I said the role of the presenter a fundamental aspect of it. I like the parallel between human faces and visualization.

    @Anthony thanks for posting your comment here! Yeah, convincing politicians is another story, they have their own agenda but, who knows?

    • http://finiteattentionspan.wordpress.com/ Chris Atherton

      Hi Enrico

      Fascinating paper — thanks so much for the link! I love that people are tackling this stuff in methodical, scientific ways. And simultaneously, yeah, I think it is really easy for science to conveniently overlook the impact of a human being actually communicating something ;)

      Cheers,

      Chris

      • Enrico

        I’m glad you enjoy reading the papers I suggest. We definitely need more of this kind of papers. Part of my mission here is exactly to provide a bridge between academia and the real world.

  • http://www.excelcharts.com/blog/ Jorge Camoes

    Enrico, a bit late to the party, but I remember Stephen Few asked a similar question:
    http://www.perceptualedge.com/blog/?p=601

    And I wrote a provocative post:
    http://www.excelcharts.com/blog/is-data-visualization-useful/

    • Enrico

      Dear Jorge thanks a lot! This is really really useful.

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  • Florian Evéquoz

    Very inspiring post and comments.
    In a broader perspective, the whole “persuasion” problematique reminds me of Aristotle’s principles of rethoric, the art of verbal persuasion : logos (rational proof), ethos (proof by morality), pathos (proof by emotions). How these principles could be applied to visualization is a very interesting issue, in my opinion.

    • Enrico

      Hi Flo! Great to see you here! It could indeed well be a whole PhD thesis … and a very interesting one. Too bad me and you are by now out of the game ;-)

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