What Is Progress In Visualization?

Being a visualization researcher means a very large body of my work revolves around pushing the boundaries of visualization further. I do that by mostly developing innovative techniques but also trying to better understand how humans interact with this amazing tool we call visualization.

You might think I have at least a rough idea of what progress means in visualization then, but in fact I don’t. And I guess I am not alone: researchers are trained to dive into tiny details and speculate for ages. The purpose of this post is to explore bigger questions:

  • What is progress in visualization?
  • How do we make progress in visualization?
  • And how do we measure it?

I ask that because honestly I don’t see a direction in what we are doing. We researchers are mostly focussed on developing yet another technique, practitioners on (understandably) satisfying their customers. But what is our ultimate goal? Here I propose s few ways we can look at progress in visualization.

Progress As Real-World Impact

First and foremost I propose progress in visualization is the extent to which we are able to help people do remarkably useful things with data. This is for me the gold standard, the holy grail. It is a broad and vague definition but it helps. When I say “remarkably useful” I mean: can we say visualization played a critical role in curing or preventing diseases? Reducing poverty? Solving or preventing economic crises? Make people richer or happier? Etc. Think about it, why not? Why do we do visualization if not for these purposes?

Despite some few isolated cases I don’t see this happening now. We should keep our eyes open and focus more on having an impact in the real world. Visualization has this potential, I am sure, and progress is made, I believe, when we help people do remarkable things. The VisWeek conference used to host a very nice session called Discovery Exhibition with the specific intent to showcase success stories. Unfortunately, (its hurts to admit it) I think it was quite a failure. I remember a similar frustrating post from Stephen Few some years ago: “True Stories about the Benefits of Data Visualization“. And I have yet to see persuasive answers to his call.

Progress As Knowledge Construction

I have to admit measuring progress exclusively in terms of impact and success stories might be a bit fuzzy, not very practical and ultimately a bit subjective. Another possibility is to define progress as the accumulation of knowledge that permits to build more effective visualization. But what do we need to know that we don’t know yet? Broadly speaking we need to know:

  1. How humans work.
  2. How to translate knowledge about humans into visualization design.

Are we doing that right now? Partly, in academic environments and a bit outside, but not enough in my opinion. It’s surprising to see how much more foundational work has been done in the past and how little today. We have a rough idea of how visual variables (position, length, color, size, etc.) work in isolation but very little understanding of how they interact in complex environments. We have alternative visualizations for the same kind of data and little understanding of how they influence information extraction (parallel coordinates vs. scatter plot matrix? node-link diagrams vs. matrices? maps or abstract representation? animation or small multiple?) And we have not even started scratching the surface of muddier issues like semantics, influence, persuasion, etc.

Progress as Technical Achievement

I don’t even know if I need to comment on this one, it’s pretty straightforward: technical achievement is the development of visualization and interaction techniques that solve unsolved technical problems or improve performance over existing solutions. Typically this takes the following form:

  • New visualization or interaction design.
  • Faster and/or more accurate algorithms.
  • Increased scalability in terms of data size and dimensionality.
  • Accommodation of new data formats and tasks.

I think it’s safe to say academic research is mostly focused on this. I am not sure whether technical achievement translates into real benefits in real-world applications but from time to time we have really useful stuff coming out. Edge bundling and horizon graphs are the first things that come into my mind. Are we making progress in this area? Yes. Would I like to see more? Yes and no … In a way sometimes I feel like we are spinning the wheel (please note that I include myself into this description and I am not immune to many many faults) so I’d like to see less spinning-the-wheel technical contributions and more useful stuff. But I also realize we cannot invent a new edge bundling every year. Progress happens with valleys and peaks.

Progress As Education and Adoption

Maybe this is the most neglected kind of progress, yet it very much lies at my heart. The last way to define progress in visualization I propose is the extent to which we are able to teach people how to judge and use visualization effectively and how many people will use visualization in their work. We need to reach more people (visualization at school?) but more importantly we need to teach proper visualization. We need courses, seminars, teaching material, web sites, and a whole army of evangelists. I am lucky enough to know quite a bunch of them but we need more.

I want to measure progress in a few years by counting how many people are able to criticize a chart. I also want to measure progress by assessing whether visualization will be part of the standard toolbox of scientists, business men and decision makers around the world.


This is what I had to say about progress. I know it’s not perfect, it’s just a draft. And now it’s your turn. How do you define progress in visualization? Are we making progress? How would you measure progress in visualization in, let’s say, 5 or 10 years from now?

And by the way, do you care about making progress? Why not? It is not necessary to be “a researcher” to make progress, you can make progress in a thousand ways. The only thing we need is to bring more focus. Or maybe we just have to let things happen and have some fun? I am looking forward to hearing from you guys. Thanks for reading.

On a side note: I have been out of the scenes with FILWD for a very long while. There are good reasons why that happened (I’ll tell you more about that later) but I want to assure you FILWD is not going to fade away. To the contrary, I have many plans on how to grow it further and offer a better service. If you are still there reading me after so much time well … thank you so much from the bottom of my heart! -Enrico