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...help you solve problems and sell ideas. It's a pretty bold claim. Some people think visualization is just a gimmick. Others just accept that visualization works, and there's plenty of annecdotes out there. In fact, there's a lot of great research too. Many thanks to the great researchers out there (some affiliated with Visualization Network and others not yet) who are moving the cause of visualization forward. Here are just some of the findings:

What do visuals really do and are all visuals equally useful?
How do you choose the right visual approach?
Can visuals really influence people?
Can visualization really improve meeting effectiveness and results?
Do shared visuals really improve communication?
Does collaboration improve recall and retention?
Does the creation of visuals really add any value?
Can visualization really support the company strategy?
Can visuals impact learning?
Does presentation design really matter?
Aren't metaphors just visual junk and more of a distraction?

What do visuals really do and are all visuals equally useful?

Are visuals really all that useful or powerful? Are all visuals really that good? What qualities make a useful visual?

Findings: Visuals can help groups focus attention, surface areas of agreement and disagreement, make implicit knowledge and experience explicit, discover new perspectives, document decisions, and revise decisions. However, certain qualities of the visualization depending on the situation may impact the results such as:
  • fluid vs. fixed status
  • indvidual vs. collective use
  • individual vs. collective ownership
  • clear vs. ambiguous notations
  • physical vs. computer-based
  • stylistic simplicity vs. sophistication
  • abstract/conceptual vs. concrete/spacial
  • one-time/ad-hoc vs. repated/cumulative
Martin Eppler
Date: 2007
Authors: Martin Eppler
Location: University of Lugano, Lugano, Switzerland
Title: Toward a Visual Turn in Collaboration Analysis

How do you choose the right visual approach?

If all visuals aren't created equal, how do you choose the right approach? Audience? Delviery? Topic? Resources?

Findings: Choosing the right visual should be based on the various levels of need for visual impact, clarity, perceived finishedness, directed focus, facilitated insight, modifiability, and group interaction support Martin EpplerAlan Blackwell
Date: February 2008
Authors: Martin Eppler, Alan Blackwell, and Sabrina Bresciani
Location: Cambridge University, England, United Kingdom
Title: Choosing Visualisations for Collaborative Work and Meetings: A Guide to Usability Dimensions

Can visuals really influence people?

Isn't it really people influencing people? Can visuals influence poeple? Will people draw conclusions and inferrences from visuals?

Findings: Visuals are a powerful tool that create meaning through associational logic and create intertextual references. In addition, captions help make sense of an image and, for better or worse, influence it's interpretation. Neal FeigensonRichard Sherwin
Date: December 2007
Authors: Neal Feigenson and Richard Sherwin
Location: Quinnipiac University, Connecticut, United States and New York Law School, New York, United States
Title: Thinking Beyond the Shown: Implicit Inferences in Evidence and Argument

Can visualization really improve meeting effectiveness and outcomes?

We've always done meetings this way and the business seems to work. So, they're frequent, long, and boring, but it's work. Can meetings be more efficient and effective?

Findings: Using visualization and visualization software during meetings fosters knowledge sharing, improves productivity, creates more ideas, creates better ideas, and increases recall Martin Eppler
Date: September 2009
Authors: Martin Eppler and Sabrina Bresciani
Location: University of St. Gallen, St. Gallen, Switzerland and University of Lugano, Lugano, Switzerland
Title: Improving Knowledge Sharing through Visualization: Experimental Evidence

Do shared visuals really improve communication?

Creating visuals, object, and artifacts takes time and money. Bringing people together or distributing the visuals can take a lot of time, money, and coordination. Is it really worth it? Couldn't a phone call or discussion serve the same purpose?

Findings: Shared visual information improves performance and efficiency by compacting expressions, increasing awarness of other team members, grounding conversations, explain what was said, reducing errors, and reducing ambiguities Darren Gergle
Date: May 2007
Authors: Darren Gergle
Location: Carnegie Mellon University, Pennsylvania, United States
Title: The Value of Shared Visual Information for Task-oriented Collaboration

Does collaboration improve recall and retention?

Many of the methods used in visualization employ collaboration. Is collaboration really necessary? Does it provide any value? Can't I get as much value if I just do it myself?

Findings: Collaboration increases memory, even when the others in your group are remembering incorrectly. Even more impressive is that collaboration increases recall after both 48 hours and a full week. Suparna Rajaram
Date: February 2007
Authors: Suparna Rajaram and Luciane P Pereira-Pasarin
Location: Stony Brook University, New York, United States
Title: Collaboration can improve individual recognition memory: Evidence from immediate and delayed tests

Does the creation of visuals really add any value?

The end is all that matters. Just do it together. Just reuse the visual from before. Just give me a pretty picture. We hear this all the time, but is it the visual artifact that creates the value or is it really the process that brings the value? Or is it both?

Findings: The creative process and specifically sketches externalizes ideas, makes ideas more permanent, conveys abstract ideas, makes comprehension and inference easier, promotes memory, creates an artifact, aids working memory, allows community participation, checks for completeness & consistency, discovers new ideas and relationships, facilitates inference, and can reveal thinking. Barbara Tversky
Date: 2002
Authors: Barbara Tversky
Location: Stanford University, California, United States
Title: What Do Sketches Say About Thinking?

Can visualization really support the company strategy?

Strategy is serious business. So maybe visuals can support the communication in someways, but can it really help with the planning and implementation?

Findings: Visualization can reduce cognitive, social, and emotional challenges in creating business strategy. Here are some of the ways:
Challenges of Strategy Creationvs.Visualizaiton Benefits
information overloadvs.increased capacity and synthesis
stuck in old view pointsvs.enabling new perspectives
biased evaluationsvs.more exhaustive comparisons
analysis paralysisvs.easier recall & sequencing
diverging views & assumptionsvs.integrating different perspectives
incomplete communicationvs.mutual understanding
uncoordinated actionvs.tracking & showing interdependencies
not my processvs.involvement & engagement
not my strategyvs.motivation & inspiration
i'm not bought invs.it's mine

Not only can visuals help with communication, they can help at all stages of the strategy process:

  • analysis - helps with the elicitation & synthesis of data
  • development - helps with generation & comparison of options
  • planning - helps sequence and see interdependencies
  • implementation - helps with tracking

Visualization is not without it's risks though. Using visualization can lead to superficial analysis, over generalization, illusion of deeper understanding, ambiguous communication, alter inputs, lead to premature closure, become too complex, may not be scalable, may hide disagreement, and may lead to suboptimal decisions.

Facilitators should:

  • use individual and collective visualizations to reduce group think
  • continually refine & revise the visual
  • reduce representational complexity & highlight key patterns
  • surface under-represented elements or unarticulated opinions (reading between the lines)
  • use different (but linked) visualization methods where appropriate
Martin EpplerKen Platts
Date: 2008
Authors: Martin Eppler and Ken Platts
Location: University of Lugano, Lugano, Switzerland and Cambridge University, England, United Kingdom
Title: Visual Strategizing: The Systematic Use of Visualization in the Strategic-Planning Process

Can visuals impact learning?

Textbooks, research reports, and other materials are all text based and have worked just fine. Visuals are frivolous and text holds the real content. Shouldn't the text be dominent? Are visualls really that effective? Can visuals really have an impact on a constructivist approach?

Findings: When used appropriately and combined with text, visuals can improve learning, communication, and retention. They are more effective than text for communicating complex content, and including graphics with text makes long-term memory more effective. Also, constructing your own visuals involve different cognitive processes than learning from preconstructed ones.
Date: September 2002
Authors: Ioanna Vekiri
Location: University of Michigan, Michigan, United States
Title: What Is the Value of Graphical Displays in Learning?

Does presentation design really matter?

Presentation design takes a lot of time. The default templates and bullets are easier and faster. Are bullets really harmful? Does presentation design really matter? Is it really worth the extra time and expense?

Findings: Traditional bullet point slides have dramatically lower immediate recall than slides with imagery and/or sparse text either due to lower cognitive demand or better encoding of information. Chris Atherton
Date: October 2009
Authors: Chris Atherton
Location: University of Central Lancashire, England, United Kingdom
Title: Visual Attention: A Psychologist's Perspective

Aren't metaphors just visual junk and more of a distraction?

That's just chart junk. Metaphors are a distraction from the real point. Why not just use a diagram, chart or table?

Findings: Visual metaphors can give voice to emotions and create a common framework for discussions which are both critical element of organizational change. Metaphors are compact, become a selective lens to see through, leave room for interpretation, provide a method of expressing emotions (conciously and unconciously), and can help interpret and make sense of change (sensemaking). Robert Barner
Date: June 2007
Authors: Robert Barner
Location: Southern Methodist University, Texas, United States
Title: The Dark Tower: Using Visual Metaphors to Facilitate Emotional Expression During Organizational Change

Copyright 2009 Tom Crawford. All Rights Reserved.
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