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!

Exascale Escapes 2018 Budget Axe; Rest of Science Suffers

May 23, 2017

President Trump's proposed $4.1 trillion FY 2018 budget is good for U.S. exascale computing development, but grim for the rest of science and technology spend Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Hedge Funds (with Supercomputing help) Rank First Among Investors

May 22, 2017

In case you didn’t know, The Quants Run Wall Street Now, or so says a headline in today’s Wall Street Journal. Quant-run hedge funds now control the largest Read more…

By John Russell

IBM, D-Wave Report Quantum Computing Advances

May 18, 2017

IBM said this week it has built and tested a pair of quantum computing processors, including a prototype of a commercial version. That progress follows an an Read more…

By George Leopold

PRACEdays 2017 Wraps Up in Barcelona

May 18, 2017

Barcelona has been absolutely lovely; the weather, the food, the people. I am, sadly, finishing my last day at PRACEdays 2017 with two sessions: an in-depth loo Read more…

By Kim McMahon

HPE Extreme Performance Solutions

Exploring the Three Models of Remote Visualization

The explosion of data and advancement of digital technologies are dramatically changing the way many companies do business. With the help of high performance computing (HPC) solutions and data analytics platforms, manufacturers are developing products faster, healthcare providers are improving patient care, and energy companies are improving planning, exploration, and production. Read more…

US, Europe, Japan Deepen Research Computing Partnership

May 18, 2017

On May 17, 2017, a ceremony was held during the PRACEdays 2017 conference in Barcelona to announce the memorandum of understanding (MOU) between PRACE in Europe Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

NSF, IARPA, and SRC Push into “Semiconductor Synthetic Biology” Computing

May 18, 2017

Research into how biological systems might be fashioned into computational technology has a long history with various DNA-based computing approaches explored. N Read more…

By John Russell

DOE’s HPC4Mfg Leads to Paper Manufacturing Improvement

May 17, 2017

Papermaking ranks third behind only petroleum refining and chemical production in terms of energy consumption. Recently, simulations made possible by the U.S. D Read more…

By John Russell

PRACEdays 2017: The start of a beautiful week in Barcelona

May 17, 2017

Touching down in Barcelona on Saturday afternoon, it was warm, sunny, and oh so Spanish. I was greeted at my hotel with a glass of Cava to sip and treated to a Read more…

By Kim McMahon

Exascale Escapes 2018 Budget Axe; Rest of Science Suffers

May 23, 2017

President Trump's proposed $4.1 trillion FY 2018 budget is good for U.S. exascale computing development, but grim for the rest of science and technology spend Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Cray Offers Supercomputing as a Service, Targets Biotechs First

May 16, 2017

Leading supercomputer vendor Cray and datacenter/cloud provider the Markley Group today announced plans to jointly deliver supercomputing as a service. The init Read more…

By John Russell

HPE’s Memory-centric The Machine Coming into View, Opens ARMs to 3rd-party Developers

May 16, 2017

Announced three years ago, HPE’s The Machine is said to be the largest R&D program in the venerable company’s history, one that could be progressing tow Read more…

By Doug Black

What’s Up with Hyperion as It Transitions From IDC?

May 15, 2017

If you’re wondering what’s happening with Hyperion Research – formerly the IDC HPC group – apparently you are not alone, says Steve Conway, now senior V Read more…

By John Russell

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

HPE Launches Servers, Services, and Collaboration at GTC

May 10, 2017

Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE) today launched a new liquid cooled GPU-driven Apollo platform based on SGI ICE architecture, a new collaboration with NVIDIA, a Read more…

By John Russell

IBM PowerAI Tools Aim to Ease Deep Learning Data Prep, Shorten Training 

May 10, 2017

A new set of GPU-powered AI software announced by IBM today brings automation to many of the tedious, time consuming and complex aspects of AI project on-rampin Read more…

By Doug Black

Bright Computing 8.0 Adds Azure, Expands Machine Learning Support

May 9, 2017

Bright Computing, long a prominent provider of cluster management tools for HPC, today released version 8.0 of Bright Cluster Manager and Bright OpenStack. The 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

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

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

Nvidia Responds to Google TPU Benchmarking

April 10, 2017

Last week, Google reported that its custom ASIC Tensor Processing Unit (TPU) was 15-30x faster for inferencing workloads than Nvidia's K80 GPU (see our coverage Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

CPU-based Visualization Positions for Exascale Supercomputing

March 16, 2017

Since our first formal product releases of OSPRay and OpenSWR libraries in 2016, CPU-based Software Defined Visualization (SDVis) has achieved wide-spread adopt Read more…

By Jim Jeffers, Principal Engineer and Engineering Leader, Intel

TSUBAME3.0 Points to Future HPE Pascal-NVLink-OPA Server

February 17, 2017

Since our initial coverage of the TSUBAME3.0 supercomputer yesterday, more details have come to light on this innovative project. Of particular interest is a ne 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 Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Leading Solution Providers

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

Tokyo Tech’s TSUBAME3.0 Will Be First HPE-SGI Super

February 16, 2017

In a press event Friday afternoon local time in Japan, Tokyo Institute of Technology (Tokyo Tech) announced its plans for the TSUBAME3.0 supercomputer, which w Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Is Liquid Cooling Ready to Go Mainstream?

February 13, 2017

Lost in the frenzy of SC16 was a substantial rise in the number of vendors showing server oriented liquid cooling technologies. Three decades ago liquid cooling Read more…

By Steve Campbell

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 Eng Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

IBM Wants to be “Red Hat” of Deep Learning

January 26, 2017

IBM today announced the addition of TensorFlow and Chainer deep learning frameworks to its PowerAI suite of deep learning tools, which already includes popular Read more…

By John Russell

HPC Technique Propels Deep Learning at Scale

February 21, 2017

Researchers from Baidu's Silicon Valley AI Lab (SVAIL) have adapted a well-known HPC communication technique to boost the speed and scale of their neural networ Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

US Supercomputing Leaders Tackle the China Question

March 15, 2017

As China continues to prove its supercomputing mettle via the Top500 list and the forward march of its ambitious plans to stand up an exascale machine by 2020, Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

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 advance Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

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