Interface Design: Visualization Methods

periodic table of visualization techniques

Visualizing complex data can be very difficult. There are almost as many ways to visualize data as there are data to visualize. The Ralph Lengler and Martin J. Eppler at the Visual Literacy Organization collect many of them for us in a periodic table.

References

Hat tip to Kevin Kelly for sharing this with us in his Cool Tools blog. The periodic table is available at the visual-literacy.org website. Hovering over each element provides an example of the type of visualization.

Different Types of Visualization

One of the biggest challenges in visualization of complex information is in selecting a means to visualize it. Many approaches simply don’t fit the data – they have too few, or too many variables. For example, a pie chart is great for showing percentages (37% of new iPhone purchasers switched carriers, 5% had no service previously, 40% were existing AT&T customers, 18% did not respond) or relative proportions. The pie chart is not effective at showing trends or changes in the data (last year 20%…). You could have multiple pie charts, but there are more effective ways to show the trends in the data.

The periodic table that the Visual Literacy folks put together would otherwise be overwhelming – each element represents a way to visualize information. When you have something to visualize, it would be difficult and tedious to hover over each element, until you saw something inspiring. So they’ve organized it into six different categories of visualization.

  • Data Visualization – line chart, pie chart, scatterplot, etc.
  • Information Visualization – radar chart, tree map, data flow diagram, etc.
  • Concept Visualization – mind map, layer chart, pyramid technique, etc.
  • Strategy Visualization – supply & demand curve, failure tree, life cycle diagram, etc.
  • Metaphor Visualization – tree, funnel, bridge, etc.
  • Compound Visualization – cartoon, knowledge map, info-mural, etc.

There is also an overlay of text color (blue versus black), where blue elements (like the timeline) represent process visualizations, and black elements (like the venn diagram) represent structure visualizations.

There are also symbols to indicate if the visualization technique is suited to details, overviews or both. And more symbols to indicate if the diagram is intended to cause viewers to come up with new answers (e.g. solutions to a problem), or to indicate that the diagram is designed to clarify insights found in complex data (like the stakeholder rating map).

Conclusion

There are some very cool techniques presented. What would make the site even better would be if each element were a link to a page about that particular type of visualization. Roll-over graphics are handy for easily comparing different techniques – hopefully the authors will add detailed pages for the techniques. Of course, that is a huge job. If they added one per week, it would take two years!

Check them out – they will inspire thoughts when you’re really stuck.

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