In the field of information visualization, professing one’s admiration for the work of the New York Times is not a very bold statement. However, my point is that they are admired mostly for the wrong reason (excellence in visual design and aesthetics). And by that, I don’t mean that it is not important to produce a visually pleasing experience, but rather that the work of the NYT graphics team deserves even more praise for its conception than its execution.
In the two examples I have chosen I’m highlighting aspects of their work that should be emulated with more dedication than their trademark visual style.
Those will be: You Fix the Budget, published in November 13th 2010, and the recent The Death of a Terrorist: A Turning Point? published May 3rd, 2011.
Putting the user in charge
In both examples the visualizations work by asking the user their opinion in a very simple, non-intrusive manner. In the budget example the user can check or uncheck boxes. Each box is attached to a highly legible text that can easily entice a reaction. The title alone (i.e. “cut foreign aid in half”) which is always short and to the point, is enough for the user to take a position – agree (and check the box) or disagree. In a possible second phase, the user can read a more detailed description and see how much money can be saved by enacting such or such measure.
All in all, the experience is not directive and feels user-controlled. On typical information visualizations (say, gapminder) even if there are many controls the user is left on the spectator seat: the data unfold, they can be presented differently but the output cannot be changed. Conversely, this is a simulation: by capturing a certain number of key inputs from the user, there can be different outcomes.
The same can be said about the Ussama Bin Laden one. The user simply positions their mood on a map. In one gesture they answer two questions. Then, they can speak their mind. While this doesn’t take a lot of energy from the user the system is able to collect, in this simple interaction, a very precise answer that can be aggregated with everyone else’s.
Each user input has an impact on the overall shape of the visualization. By using it, people are naturally re-shaping it. Again, the question is non-directive (although it seems in all fairness that extreme positions are made more appealing with this presentation). There is no right, or wrong answer. The authors of the visualization are not giving a lecture on how people should feel or react to the event, likewise, they were not weighing too heavily on one side or the other of the political spectrum in the budget puzzle. I did feel a slight bias but I think they did their best to make it objective. But by letting the user experiment with the options at their disposal they encourage them to make their own opinion.
The visualization reacts to me
So we’ve established that the user in charge in both cases. The visualization reinforces that feeling by providing clear feedback when the user interacts with it, even it this is not the “end” of the experience. For instance, every cross checked and unchecked causes mini-panels to rotate in the budget puzzle, which are an evidence that something is happening, or that the system is taking the user into account. Technically, these transitions are absolutely not necessary but they really support that idea that the user is in charge and that even the most innocuous input is taken into account.
This relates to me
When discussing budget it’s easy to get carried away in a swirl of millions, billions, and the like. This is why it is not uncommon to see, even in the most serious publications, writers who, by an honest mistake, divide or multiply an economic indicator by a factor of thousand or a million. It is not very effective to present such big numbers without a referent, especially to a non-specialist audience. I don’t know what a billion dollar is. This is too abstract. A million people? this is awfully like 2 million people or 100,000 people in my opinion.
I think it is pointless to try to “educate” the citizens and hope they will remember “important statistics” like GDP. Those large and abstract numbers don’t relate to them and they don’t need them to live their daily lives. That said, every citizen can make an informed decision based on their values if they are presented facts in a way that speak to them. For instance, whether medicare budget should be cut by $10 billion per year is a difficult question. But whether the eligibility age should be risen to 68 years is framing the question in a way that does relate to users.
For the death of a terrorist one, my initial reaction was to look for the words of people who would be in the same quadrant as me. Do they feel as I do? How about those who are in very different parts of the matrix? how do they put their feelings into words? I relate to both of these groups, differently but in a way that interests me and encourages me to interact further. Also, I see that I am not part of the majority. That again tells me something which is based on my relationship with the visualization and the respondents. This relationship is enabled by the author, but again not directed.
Going further – game mechanisms in visualization
Letting the user manipulate parameters that change not only how data is represented, but change the data proper, is not unlike videogames. Many games are really a layer of abstraction over an economic simulation, like Sim City or (gasp) Farmville. There is now ample research in gamification, which is the introduction of game mechanisms in non-game contexts. Such game mechanisms can make visualizations more compelling, more engaging for the users and, by putting them in the right state of mind, these mechanisms can improve the transmission of ideas and opinions.