4.18.2 Information visualisation
We read increasingly of the problem of information overload. Earlier, we emphasised the importance of designing appropriate information representations to assist human interpretation in order to create actionable knowledge. Information visualisation is concerned explicitly with designing representations using intuitive visual metaphors and graphics to highlight the most important aspects of information structures and processes. Information visualisation is a rapidly emerging area which will grow in importance as the information ocean continues to swell, and as high-performance desktop computers and networks plummet in price, making sophisticated three-dimensional graphics affordable. Information visualisation seeks to design visual ways to communicate large amounts of information in intuitive ways, with particular emphasis on using visual cues to augment text. A useful resource on this is provided by Chen (1999).
An important myth to dispel is that visual languages are intrinsically superior to text. The literature of those marketing (and even researching) information visualisation is often filled with hyperbole, typically arguing that since the human mind can absorb and process vast quantities of visuospatial information, visual representations (of the Web, documents, system or user behaviour over time) are the key to the future. More careful analysis by cognitive scientists clarifies that:
There are very few useful ‘pure’ visual representations – they are usually graphical/textual hybrids.
Often text can be formatted far more clearly than it actually is, introducing visuospatial attributes (for example, using indentation to show structure, or font formatting to highlight key concepts).
The efficacy of visualisations is intimately linked to the task that the particular kind of user has to perform. Visualisations can undoubtedly communicate more information, and reduce cognitive load in certain circumstances, but they can equally hide information and increase cognitive load in others.
You will no doubt have seen on television computer-based models of chemical structures being rotated, perhaps using virtual reality to ‘immerse’ the viewer in the world they are exploring. But what might it mean to render corporate knowledge like this? Or to detect trends in the global markets as though they were oceans with complex currents and eddies? Information does not often have an obvious ‘structure’, like a molecule or atom; it has many possible structures, depending on our perspective. How can this be made tangible?