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


9 thoughts on “What Is Progress In Visualization?

  1. Chris Twigg

    Hi Enrico,

    For me it would be developments in understanding possible persuasive dimensions of vis, falling under the Knowledge Construction category that you mention. It would be a demonstrable growing appreciation of responsibility in vis practice.

    Not that I’m suggesting vis isn’t responsible in this way, or that ‘persuasiveness’ is necessarily bad…

    Ward’s study ‘The Ethic of Exigence’ has a really interesting account of how knowledge and meaning is co- constructed through visualisations. He uses a pretty extreme example (actually an infographic of the Nuremberg Laws Poster, not strictly a vis, a display of information) – he speaks about ethics and responsibility as important factors in visualisation, which can be, after all, a powerful and persuasive form of communication. I think this involves looking outside of practice to external factors that surround production and consumption of vis, that impact on how meaning is made, and relating this back to developing design practice.

    Thanks Enrico, great blog BTW. I have ‘lurked’ for a while but felt it was time to chip in and say hi.



  2. cscheid

    Hi Enrico,

    great post! I’ll offer my typical defense of “spinning-the-wheel” technical progress, since I’m probably likely to be guilty of it :)

    The main risk I see with discouraging “spinning-the-wheel” technical advances is that it is hard, in foresight, to predict which technical advances will be genuinely useful, and which will be footnotes in history.

    If you cannot tell which techniques will be useful ahead of time, discouraging these advances amounts to throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

  3. James Lytle

    Thoughtful post. It’s the elephant in the room. We all know its there, but collectively there’s much individual poking and prodding, when perhaps we need to get together and push in one direction to get this guy moving. The poking (tangential innovations, philosophizing on beauty and purpose, big data navel gazing) is important, but the point at which a civilization makes true steps forward is when a common language emerges. The degree to which this common language is democratized and accessible is the extent to where we can stop for a second, look back, and see significant progress that’s been made. I’m not so much talking about heuristic patterns, though they’re relevant, rather something more akin to grammar and sentence structure.

    Looking forward to see what you’ve got cookin’

  4. FILWD

    @Chris: You are right, ethics plays a key role here and checking whether people will be more responsible in the future is definitely part of the equation here. I would put this in the education area.

    @Carlos: I couldn’t agree more! At least as a way to deal with my bad conscience :-) I’ve been doing a lot of this and I am sure I will do in the future. But keeping an eye on it cannot hurt.

    @James: There is a lot to do. I think this post of mine is first of all a way to clarify things to myself. I see a lot of chaos around and I really needed to stop for a moment and ask: “where am I going? why am I really doing this stuff?” I think we all need to do more of that.

  5. Gregor Aisch

    Hi Enrico,

    Thanks for sharing your interesting thoughts. Maybe the view of an practitioner can add something to this.

    Progress as attention savings

    Often I find that the knowledge is not created or constructed exclusively by a given visualization. In many cases the same knowledge (or even more) can be communicated by an 500 words article. The problem is that reading 500 words takes some time and a lot of our valuable and limited attention. So the real value of visualization is to get the same things faster. Having said this, the progress in visualization would also be defined as the minimum time required to comprehend a certain issue.

    Progress as attention attraction

    And, of course, there’s the business side. Many (popular) visualizations were designed primarily to attract attention of their target audience. As said, attention is highly valuable good, and it translates directly into advertising revenues or brand awareness. And many organizations measure the progress of visualization that way.

  6. Jorge Camoes

    Enrico, here are a few random thoughts:

    – progress in visualization is to recognize it needs an “s” (visualizations”): it should be clear for everyone that business, scientific, artistic… visualizations have their own goals, methods and tools.
    – progress in visualization means that information overload and visualization overload are equally bad. Higher general literacy should help people to understand how to choose the right tool for the task at hand.
    – progress in visualization is to be able to use the full potential of traditional charts.
    – progress in visualization is to encourage people to explore new ways of presenting/analyzing the data without restrictions, the more the merrier: some of them will be able to stand the test of time and effectiveness.
    – progress in some visualization perspectives is to find a way to remove dimensions and textures, creating a vastly complex scatter plot landscapes, not much different from what we see when we open our eyes.
    – progress in visualization means to decide if we accept as a law that “la graphique est fondée sur les propriétés physiologiques de la perception visuelle” (Bertin dixit) or if/when we are allowed to break the law; in other words, if we should above all obey the laws and mechanics of human perception.
    – progress in visualization means that we should contribute to higher graphicacy and numeracy, because “a rising tide lifts all boats”.
    – progress in visualization means that visualization and statistics are the two faces of a single coin.
    – progress in visualization means stop searching for the “worst pie chart ever” or lying with scales.
    – progress in visualization means that we need more posts like this one :)

  7. Marjolein - Studio Lakmoes

    Very interesting post and thoughts! As a part-time researcher and part-time designer focusing on infographics and educating myself in data visualization I am very much interested in the questions you raise and possible answers. The possible progress types you mention seem to me very much focusing on progress of the quality of infographics themself and not so much on their effect on the world. Maybe that wasn’t your goal, but to mee, thinking about progress in visualization is very much about how the new found interest in visuals will (in my opinion) change the way we transfer knowledge and will have a very powerful impact on the way research is carried out, children are educated and information is exchanged. For centuries the most accepted way of exchanging knowledge has been words, either spoken or written down. Images where perceieved as illustrative, not take as seriously as words, and sometimes even perceived as frilly or taking up space for words. Most scienctific peer reviewed magazines are very text heavy, because text is thought to carry the message, the data, the arguments, while images are only there to stress the point. Children educational books contain images for the very young, but this rapidly decreases in books for the older children. My point is, as visualizations mature into more sophisticated information carriers, rather than ‘frilly’ illustrations that don’t serve another purpose than being pretty, visuals will be taken more seriously in knowledge transfer and will replace in many cases knowledge transfer woth text. I think trends like the use of computers, unfit for reading long texts, and the need for faster information uptake, enhances this trend. What’s needed for this are all the things you mention in your post: better understanding of human cognition, better techniques to build better visuals, educating people into understanding and reading visualizations – very much so like teaching a child to read words.

    Do you see this trend happening also, or do you think the future world of visualization will look different?

  8. FILWD

    @Gregor: Very useful thoughts! The idea of visualization as making things faster is as opposed to making things it is not possible to do otherwise is a fascinating one and I have heard it already by T. Munzner. But going back to progress: I originally wrote the post thinking about progress in terms of things we can and should do rather than on how to measure it.

    @Jorge: thanks for your “laundry” list of progress! :-) It looks to me many of the detailed things you offer fall in either of the broad categories I proposed. Or is there anything which does not fit in?

    @Marjolein: I think you are reasoning along similar lines as Gregor. Yes, very interesting angle that I had not considered in my initial list. Your comment has a broader and made me think of Bred Victor’s work and his “explorable explanations” (http://worrydream.com/ExplorableExplanations/). As we make this world more visual we will find completely new means of transferring knowledge.

    Thanks guys for your insightful comments!


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