From Confusing to Convincing: A Framework for Using Animation and Storytelling to Bolster the Effectiveness of Interactive Visualizations

Michael Freeman (University of Washington)
Location: 115
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An increasing volume of data, from scientific research to pop culture, is being presented online through interactive graphics. These tools empower general audiences to explore data with a granularity that was previously unavailable, but with variable success. The value of powerful visualization tools is lost when audiences are overwhelmed by a confusing graphical interface, even if the display is technically appropriate. As datasets become larger and require more powerful data visualizations, it is crucial that audiences are intrigued (not intimidated) by interactive visualizations. In this talk, I present a framework and specific techniques for using animation and storytelling to introduce complex visual systems to broad audiences.

When working with visualizations for big data, there are a number of factors which engender confusion. These include:

  • The number of data points presented is uninterpretable or overwhelming
  • It is unclear what each graphical element (e.g., point or line) represents
  • Multiple simultaneous encodings of variables such as position, color, and shape are not easily cognitively processed
  • Interactive methods (e.g., hover, click, drag, etc.) are not explicitly communicated

While the solution to these challenges depends on the intended audience and content, there are generalizable techniques for simplifying visualizations. In this talk, I present a framework for using animation and storytelling to build charts through multiple stages. By separately introducing graphical characteristics, each property of a visualization can be communicated to users. The success of this approach is only fully realized when the information is presented as a narrative story, rather than laborious instructions. For example, this graphic informs the user that each line is a person by first showing a single line with a name rather than directly stating each line represents a person. Specific methods presented in this framework include:

  • Stating what each element (point, line, etc.) exemplifies (a person, country, etc.)
  • Encoding elements with one attribute at a time (e.g., X position then Y position in a two dimensional plot)
  • Delaying the introduction of selection menus until the graphic is complete and all elements are understood

Using these and other techniques, visualization designers can build captivating interactive graphics. Participants in this presentation will be provided with a conceptual framework for weaving together interface instruction and storytelling. This art of articulating graphical properties through data narrative will continue to be a key driver of the impact of powerful visual tools.

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Michael Freeman

University of Washington

Michael Freeman is a lecturer at the University of Washington Information School, where he teaches courses on data visualization and web development. With a background in public health, Michael works alongside research teams to design and build interactive data visualizations to explore and communicate complex relationships in large datasets. His freelance work ranges from web design to software consulting. You can take a look at samples from his projects here.