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February 28, 2008



Hi Matt,

The question of how to design information visualization for a wider audience is a really interesting one (or maybe just interesting to me, since I'm writing a thesis about it). As you know, infovis is an extremely powerful tool for making sense out of all the data that we're increasingly inundated with, but it has yet to go "mainstream" as something that can be deployed for use by non-experts, in part for the reasons you mention here. Figuring out why, and how to fix this, seems like something that should be particularly relevant to current research in the field.

I think there are at least four axes from which to approach the central question you suggest:

The "socialization" of infovis design, as you point out, is a major one. The success of sites like Many Eyes and Swivel prove this, in the keen way that they leverage public interest in social media and networks to encourage shared exploration of data through visualization.

The "aesthetics" of infovis is another important one. This one is hard to define, but I think it revolves around the application of "affective design" to information visualization. In other words, if you look at the body of infovis today, it can be roughly broken in to two categories: the stuff that gets produced within an academic setting, usually for research purposes, and the examples that live out on the web, typically produced by designers or artists (I'm thinking of the popular work of Jonathan Harris or Stamen Design, etc.), that function more as works of art. I would argue that, for a non-expert mass audience, the technical research-driven infovis is too complex to be useful. On the other hand, the more aesthetic examples are often characterized as "beautiful but useless" (I think you've written about this here before as well). So for that wide audience, finding the middle ground is important; we should be looking for designs that incorporate the quantitative functionality of the more technical side, while providing the affective experience of the more artistic side. Essentially, these tools should be fun to use; so how do we synthesize things like "fun," "playfulness," "beauty" with pragmatic functionality.

The third is an understanding of the "semiology" of modern infovis. To me, this means maintaining awareness of how data is visually signified, particularly with respect to way most of us learn to "read" those signs. In short, for most of us, understanding that "the independent variable goes on the X axis and the depedent variable goes on the Y axis" is about the extent of our training in how to read data graphics (and even this is not guaranteed; Matt Ericsson from the NYT made the interesting comment at InfoVis last year that many readers cannot interpret a scatterplot where time is not on the X-axis). So it is understandable that we might try to read more modern, complex visual encodings through this lense and become confused or frustrated. The visual structures of some modern visualization methods are far more semantically ambiguous than the simple graphs we have learned about in grade school.

Finally, I think the "narrative" element of infovis is very important. This has been talked about quite a bit, and Hans Rosling's demos are perfect examples of attending to the narrative quality of data (as are some of the NYT's recent graphics). We all want the world explained to us as a story, and a lot of infovis fails to do this. The dense data displays common in infovis can be pretty imposing without an "entry-point" or guide that contextualizes the information that you're looking at; the question, I think, is how to incorporate the sorts of stuff that Rosling does in his presentations as a fundamental element of a visualization's design.

Anyways, in conclusion, I think it's really important to understand where the non-expert audience is coming from, and what motivates them, in order to design information visualization in a way that shakes its stigma as being either too complicated or too useless.

For what it's worth, I've been blogging about this kind of stuff at

Sorry for the long comment! I'm just really interested in generating more discussion around the points you mentioned here.



Matthew Hurst

Mike - thanks for the excellent overview, I liked it. One thing that everyone can work on is making data, and the visualization of data, more central. Nearly all of these things just now are peripheral 'bonus' sections of main stream media.

Hisham Abdel Maguid

We have developped a Data Visualisation Software. Almost at its final release stage.
Your comments will be appreciated.

Hisham Abdel Maguid

We have done it. go to :

Your comments will be appreciated.

Hisham Abdel Maguid

Dear Sir,

Epic Systems together with Beemode ( has developed a Data Visualization software "Trend Compass" almost ready to be released soon. It is an extension to Gapminder which was invented by a Swedish Professor. You can view it :


We are looking to promote that software in various sectors. It is a new concept in viewing statistics and trends in an animated way. It could be used in presentation, analysis,research, decision making, etc.

Here is one link for part of what we did with some Governmental institution:

Here is another link for a project we did with Princeton University on US unemployment :

I hope you could evaluate it and give me your comments. So many ideas are there.

In a few days you can test the software by uploading data on our website and getting the corresponding Flash charts. This is for a limited number of users.


Eng. Hisham Abdel Maguid
Epic Systems

Hisham Abdel Maguid

Now you can upload EXCEL and use our Trend Compass Software at :

Also see another sample link :

Hisham Abdel Maguid

Hisham Abdel Maguid

Try this link on Ads Monitoring on TV Sattelite Channels during April 2008. Pick Duration (Ads daily duration) vs Repeat (Ads repetition per day). Check the Trail Box to get a better view.

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