Data Visualization and Influence (Part 1)

persuasionI was really surprised to see the spike of interest my last post generated when I asked the simple question: “does visualization influence people?” few days ago. Let me start to thank you all for sending so many good and deep comments! The real value of the post in the end is in the comments, my part is definitely negligible in comparison to them (if you did not read the comments I encourage you to do so). I must confess my original post was written in the urge of getting some feedback, therefore I had not really reflected too much about the issue. Here I try to summarize some of the things I read from you guys and the new (more structured) ideas they generated.

(Note: this is the first part of a longer post. I had the feeling it was too much substance to be digested in one single post. Plus, I will try to add your reactions on this one if there will be some. So, if you have more ideas please comment below! Thanks.)

Visualization does influence people.

First of all. In retrospect I think the title of my post was a bit too ingenuous. But it worked amazingly well to attract people, so not too bad! But now in a clearer state of mind I must confess I believe my question was totally rhetorical. I think that visualization does influence people, like anything else that is involved in communication. Well, of course you never know whether a piece of information influences a person consciously or unconsciously, immediately or in a longer time span (thanks Petra for suggesting this one), deeply of superficially, and so on. I think the real problem in my original question is the too vague nature of the word influence and the lack of specification of what we mean when we ask if vis influences people (thus the variety of answers). Every piece of information influences people, you like it or not. So what?

What do we really mean by “influence”?

When we ask whether vis can influence people I think we have to better define what is “influence”. My feeling is that when we say “influence” we mean something that triggers some kind of mutation or reaction in the person who is invested by the new piece of information. But wait a moment, let’s give a look to what the dictionary has to say. The Merriam-Webster defines influence as:

Influence: the act or power of producing an effect without apparent exertion of force or direct exercise of command

Well, it seems to somewhat reinforce what I had in mind. Influence, in order to exist has to have an effect. And I think it’s on this effect that we have to focus if we want to better understand what we are talking about. Here I collected a few terms I found while reading your comments. Each one has been used in relation to how visualization influences people.

Visualization can be used as an influence tool for:

  • Teaching
  • Story Telling
  • Advocacy
  • … what else?

And can generate influence in the following ways:

  • Persuasion
  • Learning
  • Engagement
  • Opinion-Shaping
  • Empathy
  • … what else?

One thing I like about this last list is that it helps us better dissect the effect part of what we call influence (and by the way it makes it more amenable to measurement). Engagement and empathy are more related to the emotional side of it, whereas persuasion and opinion-shaping (thanks to Anthony Hamelle for suggesting this term) have more to do with permanent effects generated by “the thing” that influences.

I think an important distinction to make here is whether we aim, through visualization, at informing people, and let them do whatever they want with this information (including ignoring it) or convincing people of  something. In the end it boils down to these two main effects:

  • Increasing knowledge
  • Moving to a belief

And, while I do believe the first one is a fundamental aspect of visualization, I also do believe that it’s the second one that generates so much interest and that is totally under-researched. By the way, I think this is also what the guy at my talk meant when he asked his question.

In the end a more precise title for my post could have been: “Can visualization persuade people? I mean can we prove it?” I think this is the interesting part of the discussion. And the one that deserves more thoughts.

And the real question is not whether visualization can or cannot do that. I really think, as pointed out by some of you, that in fact visualization must have a role in the process. The open questions however are: (1) how does it compare to other means (based or not on data)? (2) how can we make this process better or worse? (3) what can we learn about visualization when framed into the context of persuasion?

How do we study visualization influence persuasion?

Well, frankly I don’t know. I mean I am not able now to specify the thing in details in the context of a blog post. But what is certain is that once we frame the question around persuasion what we will need to measure is the extent to which a belief has been induced or shifted.

I personally think A/B testing, as suggested by Michael Durwin, is neither right or wrong, it is just one option. But I do think that the goal is not only to see whether visualization can be better than other means in persuading people but also to understand the dynamics and the components that make it better or worse.

Is the data or the visualization that persuades people?

One subtle point that deserves more investigation in my opinion is the role data plays in the process. I mean is the fact that visualizations are constructed on top of data that make them more believable (and thus have stronger impact) or the visualization itself? I mean, are people more prone to accepting a belief or changing their belief when facts are supported by data? And, if so, can visualization play as a catalyst?

On a side note we should also ask ourselves if facts backed up by data tell necessarily the truth. But this is a whole other story that deserves its own blog post.

Even if this is very far from being a full design for a study, I think it’s much more precise than the things I wrote in my original pots and the things we discussed in the comments section.

Now it’s your turn! Do you want to experiment that? Does it make sense? Some of you seemed to be well inclined.

This is the first part of a longer blog post. I have more things to say on the subject but they just did not fit into one post. Plus, I want to give myself more time to think about it and, more importantly, I want to hear more from you on these new more structured ideas.

If you like this post please do not forget to retweet it and/or to comment on it. Thanks guys!