Notes and resources: designing effective data visualizations

It was great to hear Noah Iliinsky talk about how to apply a design process to data visualisation. He spent three hours with us, starting off with a short talk, and then guiding the audience through applying this design process to their data in a meaningful way.

Noah Iliinsky sharing ideas during his workshop for EBI Interfaces

A fuzzy iPhone photo of Noah Iliinsky sharing ideas during his workshop for EBI Interfaces

Anyone whom I work with will know that I’m often asking “What problem are you trying to solve?“, and this of course applies as well to data visualisation as it does system or interaction design. So it’s no surprise that I find Noah’s work really engaging and inspiring. He talks about understanding your reader (the audience… the “user” – their drivers and needs); understanding your data (its characteristics and dimensions, and the message within that you wish to convey); understanding the choices that you can make as you apply a design process to visualisation, choosing how to convey knowledge and enable action.

Triangulating these gets you most of the way to good data visualisation.

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Visualizing molecular interactions

This short (10-minute) TED talk really made me gape. Biologist and scientific illustrator, Drew Berry, explains that we have no ways to directly observe molecules and what they do. At TEDxSydney he showed his scientifically accurate (and entertaining!) animations that help researchers see unseeable processes within our own cells.


The power of illustration and visualization to unlock scientific mysteries reminded me of Bang Wong’s talk on the subject, and is adeptly shown here.

Information Architecture and Structural Biology

Send me your examples of structures in biology, and help to put a new perspective on information architecture.

There is an interesting project underway, across the Atlantic… Carl and Katie are both design graduates from the University of Michigan. They are exploring how structures, networks and relationships in biological systems can help to develop ideas about information architecture. They are happily embracing the idea that we can always learn something from other disciplines!

Interaction hearts biology

In terms of information architecture, sometimes, trying to work with a simply hierarchical structure for a website or some other system simply isn’t adequate.

Instead, you might want to think about an “ecology” (or perhaps an “ecosystem”), where there are numerous related and interacting elements.

So with that in mind, we could look at examples of structure in biology. This is where I hope you can help.

The guys need more examples.

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Visualization Principles – Tamara Munzner

The visualization of data and information is not something I particularly work on yet, but I still try to cover this subject whenever I can (hey, you know if you want to help me out on this, please get in touch!).

So, with that in mind, I thought that some of you might enjoy the slides from Dr Tamara Munzner’s recent Visualization Principles presentation at VizBi 2011.

Screengrab of Tamara Munzner's VizBi 2011 presentation slides

I really like the the visual language (“visual encoding”) that she covers; something that reminded me of a good article from Simon Collinson not long ago.

Anyway, there are lots of good, succinct points that give a easily-digestible overview of the principles of visualization. Now, I just need to ask her to give a talk at the EBI when she’s in the UK!  🙂

Spark ideas for information visualization

Sometimes, you might find yourself discussing large amounts of data or complex systems with your colleagues. You need a way to visualize this, to get a better handle on it, but it can be hard to know where to begin.

The Visualization Catalogue

Well, here’s something that might help to break that creative block – Jonas Löwgren’s “Visualization Catalogue”, a free collection of good (and often beautiful!) examples of information visualization and design.

Löwgren is Professor of Interaction Design, based in Malmö University, Sweden. He developed the Catalogue as part of a project he was involved in, as part of the early visual research.

He says,

The cards can be useful in a number of situations. For instance, drawing a random card can be an inspiring starting point or provocation in a visualization design process.

Another idea is to study the cards and sort them in different ways, in order to grasp some of the design space of information visualization.

Download the PDFs for the cards and the box, print them out, and try using them in your projects and discussions.

More Kano anyone?

Well, it looks as though January is Kano Month. First, we had  Jason Mesut’s introduction to the Kano model, which I posted a bit about here just last week, and now there’s another illuminating take on this tool for exploring prioritisation and user satisfaction, this time from none other than Jared Spool.

It includes some great examples from the front line of UX design, as well as some ideas for application.

Kano model diagram

Visualizing 10 years of Ensembl

This one is for those of you who are interested data visualization and the development of the Ensembl genome browser, which celebrated its 10th birthday this year.

The video below shows a visualization of ten years of CVS commits from all the developers involved in getting Ensembl to where it is today. It was produced using gource. It reminds me of those high-speed videos of spiders spinning webs.

Thanks to Guy Coates for letting us use the video here.

If you’re more UX than biology, then you might like to know what the heck a genome is… !