Why We Remember Some Visualizations and Forget Others

By Tiffany Trader

November 1, 2013

Researchers from Harvard and MIT have teamed up to address an important question: what makes a data visualization memorable? The conventional opinion is that it’s easy to identify “bad” data visualization: tacky renderings with too much text, excessive ornamentation, distracting colors, and kitschy clip art.

Top twelve most memorable visualizations from the experiment (Image courtesy of Michelle Borkin, Harvard SEAS.)
Design expert Edward Tufte refers to these pieces as “chart junk” classifying them as redundant at best, and useless at worst. The visualization community, however, is divided. Some say these seemingly extraneous elements actually serve a purpose by creating a lasting impression in the viewer’s mind.

The debate over “chart junk” became the impetus for a scientific study, which was then documented in a research paper by computer scientists at Harvard and cognitive scientists at MIT. These experts of design call into question the usefulness of a perfectly-executed graphic that hardly anyone remembers. They conclude that the very design elements that attract so much criticism can also make a visualization more memorable.

The authors write that “knowing what makes a visualization memorable is a step towards answering higher level questions like ‘What makes a visualization engaging’ or ‘What makes a visualization effective?'”

Results of this study were presented on October 15 at the IEEE Information Visualization (InfoVis) conference in Atlanta, Georgia. The work was also highlighted on Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences website.

For lead author Michelle Borkin, a doctoral student at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS), memorability is a key metric. “I spend a lot of my time reading these scientific papers, so I have to wonder, when I walk away from my desk, what am I going to remember?” she says. “Which of the figures and visualizations in these publications are going to stick with me?”

Borkin and her team performed the largest-scale visualization study of its kind, collecting 5,693 visualizations, categorized by visualization type (e.g., bar chart, line graph, etc.), from news media sites, government reports, scientific journals, and infographic sources. After eliminating multiple images (i.e., ones that were grouped rather than stand-alone) the initial pool was winnowed to 2,070 single-panel visualizations. A further subset of 410 images were selected as “target” visualizations. Each of these was annotated with additional attributes, including ratings for data-ink ratios and visual densities.

The experiment was set up as a game on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, which compensates participants, called workers, for performing HITs (“Human Intelligence Task”). Workers were presented with a sequence of images and asked to press a key if they saw an image for the second time in the sequence. At the end of the testing, each image was given a memorability score. What the researchers discovered was that observers are consistent in which visualizations are most memorable and which are most forgettable.

Out of the 410 target images, 145 contained either photographs or cartoons, humanly recognizable objects, which the scientists refer to as pictograms. The study showed that visualizations that used pictograms had on average higher memorability scores.

Borkin’s adviser, Hanspeter Pfister, a Wang Professor of Computer Science at Harvard SEAS, adds this commentary: “A visualization will be instantly and overwhelmingly more memorable if it incorporates an image of a human-recognizable object – if it includes a photograph, people, cartoons, logos – any component that is not just an abstract data visualization,” she says. “We learned that any time you have a graphic with one of those components, that’s the most dominant thing that affects the memorability.”

Visualizations that were more dense or used more color also had higher memorability scores, but other results proved a bit more surprising:

“You’d think the types of charts you’d remember best are the ones you learned in school – the bar charts, pie charts, scatter plots, and so on,” Borkin says. “But it was the opposite.” Charts with more unusual shapes – tree diagrams, network diagrams, grid matrices and such – were actually more memorable.

Audra Oliva, a principal research scientist at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab, has been studying visual memory for about six years now. Research performed by her team demonstrates that human memory responds better to human-centric images rather than landscapes.

Without this similarity across human responses, asking what makes an image or visualization more memorable than another would be pointless.

“All of us are sensitive to the same kinds of images, and we forget the same kind as well,” Oliva says. “We like to believe our memories are unique, that they’re like the soul of a person, but in certain situations it’s as if we have the same algorithm in our heads that is going to be sensitive to a particular type of image. So when you find a result like this in photographs, you want to know: is it generalizable to many types of materials – words, sound, images, graphs?”

The scientists who performed the study are excited about the potential for advancing the science of visualization, but they are also quick to point out that memorability is just one parameter. Accuracy is always the highest priority with the best visualizations also being easy to comprehend, engaging and aesthetically-pleasing. But there’s no reason they can’t also be memorable.

Subscribe to HPCwire's Weekly Update!

Be the most informed person in the room! Stay ahead of the tech trends with industy updates delivered to you every week!

The EU Human Brain Project Reboots but Supercomputing Still Needed

June 26, 2017

The often contentious, EU-funded Human Brain Project whose initial aim was fixed firmly on full-brain simulation is now in the midst of a reboot targeting a more modest goal – development of informatics tools and data/ Read more…

By John Russell

DOE Launches Chicago Quantum Exchange

June 26, 2017

While many of us were preoccupied with ISC 2017 last week, the launch of the Chicago Quantum Exchange went largely unnoticed. So what is such a thing? It is a Department of Energy sponsored collaboration between the Univ Read more…

By John Russell

UMass Dartmouth Reports on HPC Day 2017 Activities

June 26, 2017

UMass Dartmouth's Center for Scientific Computing & Visualization Research (CSCVR) organized and hosted the third annual "HPC Day 2017" on May 25th. This annual event showcases on-going scientific research in Massach Read more…

By Gaurav Khanna

How ‘Knights Mill’ Gets Its Deep Learning Flops

June 22, 2017

Intel, the subject of much speculation regarding the delayed, rewritten or potentially canceled “Aurora” contract (the Argonne Lab part of the CORAL “pre-exascale” award), parsed out additional information ab Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

HPE Extreme Performance Solutions

Creating a Roadmap for HPC Innovation at ISC 2017

In an era where technological advancements are driving innovation to every sector, and powering major economic and scientific breakthroughs, high performance computing (HPC) is crucial to tackle the challenges of today and tomorrow. Read more…

Tsinghua Crowned Eight-Time Student Cluster Champions at ISC

June 22, 2017

Always a hard-fought competition, the Student Cluster Competition awards were announced Wednesday, June 21, at the ISC High Performance Conference 2017. Amid whoops and hollers from the crowd, Thomas Sterling presented t Read more…

By Kim McMahon

GPUs, Power9, Figure Prominently in IBM’s Bet on Weather Forecasting

June 22, 2017

IBM jumped into the weather forecasting business roughly a year and a half ago by purchasing The Weather Company. This week at ISC 2017, Big Blue rolled out plans to push deeper into climate science and develop more gran Read more…

By John Russell

Intersect 360 at ISC: HPC Industry at $44B by 2021

June 22, 2017

The care, feeding and sustained growth of the HPC industry increasingly is in the hands of the commercial market sector – in particular, it’s the hyperscale companies and their embrace of AI and deep learning – tha Read more…

By Doug Black

At ISC – Goh on Go: Humans Can’t Scale, the Data-Centric Learning Machine Can

June 22, 2017

I've seen the future this week at ISC, it’s on display in prototype or Powerpoint form, and it’s going to dumbfound you. The future is an AI neural network designed to emulate and compete with the human brain. In thi Read more…

By Doug Black

DOE Launches Chicago Quantum Exchange

June 26, 2017

While many of us were preoccupied with ISC 2017 last week, the launch of the Chicago Quantum Exchange went largely unnoticed. So what is such a thing? It is a D Read more…

By John Russell

How ‘Knights Mill’ Gets Its Deep Learning Flops

June 22, 2017

Intel, the subject of much speculation regarding the delayed, rewritten or potentially canceled “Aurora” contract (the Argonne Lab part of the CORAL “ Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Tsinghua Crowned Eight-Time Student Cluster Champions at ISC

June 22, 2017

Always a hard-fought competition, the Student Cluster Competition awards were announced Wednesday, June 21, at the ISC High Performance Conference 2017. Amid wh Read more…

By Kim McMahon

GPUs, Power9, Figure Prominently in IBM’s Bet on Weather Forecasting

June 22, 2017

IBM jumped into the weather forecasting business roughly a year and a half ago by purchasing The Weather Company. This week at ISC 2017, Big Blue rolled out pla Read more…

By John Russell

Intersect 360 at ISC: HPC Industry at $44B by 2021

June 22, 2017

The care, feeding and sustained growth of the HPC industry increasingly is in the hands of the commercial market sector – in particular, it’s the hyperscale Read more…

By Doug Black

At ISC – Goh on Go: Humans Can’t Scale, the Data-Centric Learning Machine Can

June 22, 2017

I've seen the future this week at ISC, it’s on display in prototype or Powerpoint form, and it’s going to dumbfound you. The future is an AI neural network Read more…

By Doug Black

Cray Brings AI and HPC Together on Flagship Supers

June 20, 2017

Cray took one more step toward the convergence of big data and high performance computing (HPC) today when it announced that it’s adding a full suite of big d Read more…

By Alex Woodie

AMD Charges Back into the Datacenter and HPC Workflows with EPYC Processor

June 20, 2017

AMD is charging back into the enterprise datacenter and select HPC workflows with its new EPYC 7000 processor line, code-named Naples, announced today at a “g Read more…

By John Russell

Quantum Bits: D-Wave and VW; Google Quantum Lab; IBM Expands Access

March 21, 2017

For a technology that’s usually characterized as far off and in a distant galaxy, quantum computing has been steadily picking up steam. Just how close real-wo Read more…

By John Russell

Trump Budget Targets NIH, DOE, and EPA; No Mention of NSF

March 16, 2017

President Trump’s proposed U.S. fiscal 2018 budget issued today sharply cuts science spending while bolstering military spending as he promised during the cam Read more…

By John Russell

HPC Compiler Company PathScale Seeks Life Raft

March 23, 2017

HPCwire has learned that HPC compiler company PathScale has fallen on difficult times and is asking the community for help or actively seeking a buyer for its a Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Google Pulls Back the Covers on Its First Machine Learning Chip

April 6, 2017

This week Google released a report detailing the design and performance characteristics of the Tensor Processing Unit (TPU), its custom ASIC for the inference Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

CPU-based Visualization Positions for Exascale Supercomputing

March 16, 2017

In this contributed perspective piece, Intel’s Jim Jeffers makes the case that CPU-based visualization is now widely adopted and as such is no longer a contrarian view, but is rather an exascale requirement. Read more…

By Jim Jeffers, Principal Engineer and Engineering Leader, Intel

Nvidia Responds to Google TPU Benchmarking

April 10, 2017

Nvidia highlights strengths of its newest GPU silicon in response to Google's report on the performance and energy advantages of its custom tensor processor. Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Nvidia’s Mammoth Volta GPU Aims High for AI, HPC

May 10, 2017

At Nvidia's GPU Technology Conference (GTC17) in San Jose, Calif., this morning, CEO Jensen Huang announced the company's much-anticipated Volta architecture a Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Facebook Open Sources Caffe2; Nvidia, Intel Rush to Optimize

April 18, 2017

From its F8 developer conference in San Jose, Calif., today, Facebook announced Caffe2, a new open-source, cross-platform framework for deep learning. Caffe2 is the successor to Caffe, the deep learning framework developed by Berkeley AI Research and community contributors. Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Leading Solution Providers

MIT Mathematician Spins Up 220,000-Core Google Compute Cluster

April 21, 2017

On Thursday, Google announced that MIT math professor and computational number theorist Andrew V. Sutherland had set a record for the largest Google Compute Engine (GCE) job. Sutherland ran the massive mathematics workload on 220,000 GCE cores using preemptible virtual machine instances. Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Google Debuts TPU v2 and will Add to Google Cloud

May 25, 2017

Not long after stirring attention in the deep learning/AI community by revealing the details of its Tensor Processing Unit (TPU), Google last week announced the Read more…

By John Russell

US Supercomputing Leaders Tackle the China Question

March 15, 2017

Joint DOE-NSA report responds to the increased global pressures impacting the competitiveness of U.S. supercomputing. Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Russian Researchers Claim First Quantum-Safe Blockchain

May 25, 2017

The Russian Quantum Center today announced it has overcome the threat of quantum cryptography by creating the first quantum-safe blockchain, securing cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin, along with classified government communications and other sensitive digital transfers. Read more…

By Doug Black

Groq This: New AI Chips to Give GPUs a Run for Deep Learning Money

April 24, 2017

CPUs and GPUs, move over. Thanks to recent revelations surrounding Google’s new Tensor Processing Unit (TPU), the computing world appears to be on the cusp of Read more…

By Alex Woodie

DOE Supercomputer Achieves Record 45-Qubit Quantum Simulation

April 13, 2017

In order to simulate larger and larger quantum systems and usher in an age of “quantum supremacy,” researchers are stretching the limits of today’s most advanced supercomputers. Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Messina Update: The US Path to Exascale in 16 Slides

April 26, 2017

Paul Messina, director of the U.S. Exascale Computing Project, provided a wide-ranging review of ECP’s evolving plans last week at the HPC User Forum. Read more…

By John Russell

Six Exascale PathForward Vendors Selected; DoE Providing $258M

June 15, 2017

The much-anticipated PathForward awards for hardware R&D in support of the Exascale Computing Project were announced today with six vendors selected – AMD Read more…

By John Russell

  • arrow
  • Click Here for More Headlines
  • arrow
Share This