Visualization Consumerism

by Enrico on July 5, 2011

in Thoughts

consumerismA few days after my post on indispensable visualization I received an email from Prof. Georges Grinstein (what an honor! he is one of the fathers of visualization) asking for explanations about my use of the word “visualization consumerism”. I defined visualization consumerism as visualizations found on the web, used solely for communication purposes: mostly static, with little interaction and digested information.

Georges rapped a bit over my knuckles, and I understand why: ”The largest applications involves mapping. Can you drive without some form of a map? Yes, but even GPS dependent individuals look at the images most often. That’s great consumerism.

Sure I see the point. I was a little too hasty in defining the whole set of visualization for communication “visualization consumerism” and I am ready to amend and apologize. But  ”visualization consumerism” does exist and in this post I intend to explain what I mean.

Defining visualization consumerism

I define visualization consumerism the careless production and shallow consumption of visualization. Consumerist visualizations are pre-digested depictions of data with the only effect of generating an “how cool!” effect. They do not inform, they do not let you think. They do not even pretend you to spend some time thinking. At best they entertain, but only for a few seconds: the time to click, give a look, say “cool”, and leave.

Visualization consumerism is an interplay between the consumer and the producer. It’s an attitude. It’s a feedback loop between the two, like consumerism in general. Eventually, you don’t know whether companies produce crappy products because consumers want them or the other way around.

Consumerist designers don’t spend too much time thinking or simply lack the knowledge, culture and attitude necessary to build “sophisticated” artifacts.

Consumerist consumers are people surfing the web, maybe with a slight interest in visual things, who stumble across a visualization and just say “cool!”. Again, they lack the knowledge, culture and attitude necessary to appreciate good design and to distinguish it from crap.

The origin of visualization consumerism

Am I a dogmatist, fanatic, orthodox, conservative visualization theorist? No, because I don’t blame anyone for visualization consumerism. I just think we have to recognize it and act in a way to let a larger portion of our society be able to make beautiful stuff and appreciate it.

Visualization consumerism is not different from many other effects we observe today, especially in the way we consume information on the web. Reading full articles has become a luxury, we just skim over everything, and of course we do the same with visualization. Finding good articles has become a luxury (by the way, this is why I strive to write long quality articles instead of a kaleidoscope) and again visualization is no exception.

Who’s to blame for that then? No one. Really, I firmly believe the large majority of people are honest and well-intentioned. It’s only the system we live in that produces these effects. And by the way I have no intention to write a long rant against modern society because I totally love the 21st century.

It’s also not my intention to point my finger to this and that designer so that I can generate a lot of voracious comments between two gangs: the purists and the creatives. I am personally annoyed by Stephen Few’s crusade against David McCandless, I think it’s detrimental, narrow-minded and, more importantly, disrespectful.

What is to be done?

Said that, what can be done? Should we just accept it and passively complaint about how mistreated “pure” visualization is? No. I think we have to acknowledge the problem and do our best to educate people. But wait a moment …. educating people is a dangerous idea! I agree. But let me explain what I mean. When I say educating people I mean doing it bottom-up; by giving the right examples and striving for creating a thriving environment:

  1. Providing people with excellent study material
  2. Showing people sophisticated and enlightening visualizations
  3. Providing people with professional (and gentle) criticism
  4. Showing our radical passion for excellence

I know. It’s tough. But that’s the deal guys if we want to do something. I know very well from my own experience how many moments in life lead us to produce and diffuse sub-optimal stuff. I don’t deceive myself with impractical ideals, and I am not ingenuous, but I am convinced we have to lean towards doing great stuff. Always. And this makes a difference in the long run, I am sure.

Is visualization for presentation consumerism?

Going back to the initial question and Geoges’ email, a clarification is due. No, I don’t think using visualization for communication purposes is consumerism. My initial reaction is due to the fact that I see a disproportion between the use of visualization as an exploratory tool versus a presentation tool. Up to the point that people might get an impression that communication is the only purpose of visualization. This is what Georges had to say:

Visualization really fits into 3 classes which are exploratory, confirmatory, and presentation (see data vis book). Now exploratory visualization is only as good as the tool AND the analyst. A great analyst will be able to use visualization to generate many hypotheses. Once these are there then the next step of course is confirmatory and most often stats is the only too used. However combining stats and visualization provides a more grounded explanation of the variations in the numbers, more context, more connection with other hypothesis. Finally the presentation is what I would call your consumerism and we’ve not had many tools to make that fluid (from the exploration onto the presentation).

Totally agree. What is missing is the connection between communication and exploration.

We all encounter daily, daily, presentation visualizations. Most encounter confirmatory ones rarely as that’s the realm of researchers and statisticians. Very few encounter exploratory ones. But most often the presentation ones are the result of a great deal of exploration.

So true! I’ve heard so many visualization designers talking about the painful exploratory process needed to produce a visualization for communication. And I can testify myself that this is always the case.

But again, what kind of impression do we want to give to people? Do we want to send the message that the main purpose of visualization is communication? Do we want people to only consume visualizations made by others? Or do we rather want to empower people with powerful “tools for thoughts“? I still believe we have to help people discover how visualization can be an indispensable tool for them. I want to realize the big vision of augmenting the human intellect not to making it flatter.

Is visualization for the masses consumerism?

In his email Goerges mentions “visualization for the masses” as one of the main challenges for visualization. It’s a buzzword that started circulating a few years ago when ManyEyes was launched and, as far as I understand, it means giving people easy access to visualization and enabling collaboration through visualization.

I must confess “visualization for the masses” does not make my heart beat faster (I am sorry Georges). I think the word “masses” is really unfortunate and resonates too well with consumerism. Who are these masses? Do we really want to give visualization to the masses? No. I personally want to give visualization to Paul, Cindy, Frank, and Anne … people with a real face and a specific need. I think it’s very dangerous to think of a generic audience in need of visualization, because there’s nothing like visualization for everyone.

My opinion is supported by the large failures we have seen in developing general purpose visualization services on the web like ManyEyes and Swivel. Even big and successful product like Spotfire and Tableau, which seem to provide general purpose solutions, started with a very clear target population in mind. The way I see visualization used most successfully is when it is designed and targeted to a specific population (often a small one) not for a general audience. Even less for the masses!

But if visualization for the masses means trying to push for the diffusion of tools that can support the full data visualization process and allow some people learn to use visualization and not only consume it, that’s definitely great! I am not against it. But I just won’t call it “for the masses”!

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

    Enrico, a provocative question: isn’t “visualization consumerism”, like pornography, in the eye of the beholder?

    I actually like “for the masses”. You cannot give visualizations to Paul, Cindy, Frank, and Anne if their graphicacy level is so low that they don’t even understand the problem. I don’t think we can “educate” people. They must become aware of how data visualization can be used to solve their problems and we can only help them discovering their own path.

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

    Another great read Enrico. Consumerism to me is when data presentation happens without any thought towards purpose or any exploratorive process. Its a visual dump of everything. This appalling procession of ‘tower infoposters’ – if you combine two applicable terms I’ve seen to describe them – is simply a means of jumping on a craze/bandwagon and milking it dry. Its pure luck if, after consuming these, you feel in anyway smarter or pleasured. This is the mass consumerism of visualisation, as you describe it. Maybe its snobbery, in the same way a trained restaurant chef would look at someone packing up a Big Mac, but I can live with it!

    You raise a valid point about the term “masses”, and now you’ve mentioned it I can see how it can be misinterpreted as a very generic, watered down statement. I often use the term “for the masses” myself, but I mean it in relation to the masses of people who are now faced with the challenging prospect or opportunity to make sense of, and communicate, data. Whereas this responsibility was once the remit of a select few, technology has led to tasks around the analysis and data presentation to be a common extension to the duties of a much higher % of organisational roles.

  • http://irmahafidz.wordpress.com Irma

    Dear Enrico, I think I got the message. But I guess (just guess) by the masses, Georges thought about something to “change the way people thought”. Or maybe you call it to educate people, which is really dangerous, true.

    When I see certain visualization, like: Trash Tracking by MIT people, Sometimes I think about this question: “Do people will change his/ her way of thinking and the way they live their life after see all of this stuff?” Or like you said, maybe he/ she will completely forget about it after saying “Wow, it’s really cool”?

    I personally believe that Visualization is intended for the masses, which intended to bring some messages. Like we all know, people will understand easily and usually “stop” for something beautiful (the visualization) and get “something” out of it, for them selves.

  • http://beehivemedia.com Bill Shander

    I think the question about “visualization for the masses” is two-fold. You’re saying you don’t want to give the tools for visualization for the masses. But many people (I’m one) do think we should be giving the visualizations themselves to the masses. One of the great benefits of visualization, in exploration and presentation, is its ability to make the opaque clear. The masses need this more than the experts.

  • Enrico

    [Sorry guys for the late reply]

    @Jorge I am not sure whether I understand what you mean when you say “in the eyes of the beholder”. I just think visualization deserves more than this attitude. Regarding the “masses” I am personally against the terminology but not totally against the meaning. Anyway, I am still wondering why we want to do vis for the masses when we are struggling with Frank, John, etc. I totally agree with you about education. But I think it’s important to create a thriving environment where people, one the are hooked up by vis, don’t struggle to find the right guidance and information. Today it’s just a mess.

    @Andy I like the BigMac idea … anyhow I am wondering if it is really the same thing. The purpose of food is to nourish and to please: does visualization consumerism nourish or please? Regarding the masses, again I don’t like it because it doesn’t distinguish one need from another. I don’t believe in products for the masses.

    @Irma I am not sure … vis for the masses refers to people using tools to create visualizations. This is the way the term was coined and that’s the reason why I am not too keen on using it.

    @Bill again, that’s the same I said to Irma. Visualization for the masses does not refer to communicating information to the masses. With this meaning I do agree we want to help people understand things with visualization.

    Thanks a lot guys for your great comments!

  • http://vislives.com Chris Pudney

    I thought of your post as I read this one by Robert Kosara on his Eager Eyes blog.

    Robert discusses the Bateman et al. paper Useful Junk? The Effects of Visual Embellishment on Comprehension and Memorability of Charts, which concludes that some chart junk can be useful in helping the reader remember the visualization’s key message.

    It would appear that in the narrow context of visualization for presentation, some of the design elements that are derided as “chart junk” can help to reinforce a simple key message.

    • Enrico

      Good comment. I haven’t read Robert’s post yet but I know the study. I am by no means excluding the idea that embellishments and, more in general, better aesthetics is not a good thing. I on the contrary believe that a good balance between aesthetic and function is what we always have to aim for. What I am discussing here is an attitude: the careless production and consumption of visualization. Even in the realm of aesthetics and embellishments there are good ones and bad ones. Some are enlightening and pleasing, some are noisy and with a bad taste.

  • Martin L

    Comming from a related field (cartography, geovisualization) I’ve followed your blog for a while with great interest – thanks for your reflections.

    There is a similiar discussion going on in cartography, whether cartography is a form of (unidirectional) communication or a tool for interactive spatial data exploration. Within the community there is a kind of consensus that – enabled by powerful (online) tools – a sender-recipient communication-model is outdated.
    But not only after reading your post I’m not sure if this is just half of the truth rooting in the assumption of competent users. Most persons are not in the position to explore complex data fruitfully, detect characteristic patterns or generate innovative hypothesis. In my opinion it’s still the job of cartographers/professionals to supply laypersons with profound but clear and intuitive (geo)visualizations. They can be the final aim (a cognitive process is triggered anyway) or in the best case the starting point for interactive exploration. Only if we succeed in this point we can think about providing tools for independent, user-generated visualization tools (>> Why should anybody make better visualization if there is a lack of good ones?!) as suggested by e.g. Bill. And as long as we are not successful we have to live with awful maps or useless visualizations.
    The pathway to better (wouldn’t be ‘more effective’ the more appropriate term in order to prevent a moral judge?) visualization is clearly described: be self critical again and again. Plus, we have to define what a good visualization is! Beauty alone is definitely not enough (I agree with Jorge, this would end in data-pornography), but we have to make complex stuff more clear for the targeted audience (it’s the same in cartography as anywhere in visualization: you can’t produce maps for a general audience, despite they are of very low complexity).

    However, a good reading, also for professionals in the broader field of scientific visualization, might be McEachren & Kraak (1997): http://tinyurl.com/mceachren97.

    • Enrico

      Thanks a lot Martin for your comment. I am aware of the similar discussion in geovisualization. I am reading How Maps Work and it looks like this discussion has been going on for a while already.

      I personally thing that visualization for communication is very important and I do think we have to make sure people are exposed to good ones. So yes, I totally agree with you. Plus this touches the problem of visual literacy which is really really important on a longer time perspective. In the end it all boils down to creating a thriving environment as I said in my post where the number of good things, in whatever direction you look, is higher and higher.

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