Edward Tufte on ‘Beautiful Evidence’

Tonight I went to see Edward Tufte lecture on ‘visual thinking and analytical design’ at the Royal Geographic Society tonight. The room was packed, perhaps because lots of people were in town for UX London already. The event was organised by Intelligence Squared, who are apparently ‘dedicated to creating knowledge through contest’, which is an interesting goal in its own right.

It’s been a long week, so I suspect my notes are pretty sketchy, but I’m posting them in case they’re useful. Let me know if you spot any corrections. On with the talk…

[His basic thesis:] The method of production interferes with production [of knowledge?].

We do most of our serious visual thinking inside, on unreal flatland [2D] screens, looking at representations of real things, instead of being outside looking at real things. In the real world, most of our thinking would be about way-finding, rather than deep analysis.

Evidence is evidence. Information doesn’t care what it is. The intellectual tasks remain constant regardless of the mode of production/consumption – we need evidence to understand and reason about the materials to hand. We might care about mode of production but we shouldn’t segregate the information by modes of production. We need content-oriented design.

In manuscripts, the hand directly integrates words and image. When marks all come from same source e.g. hands then material is integrated. When technology has different modes of production e.g. type and drawings, then content is segregated by modes of production.

[He showed a 9th century centaur – the image was made of Latin words, a unification of text and image.] Visual meaning of Latin centaur is still clear despite language. The universality of images, the stupefying locality of languages. Images are cosmopolitan, words are local and parochial. When the language is unknown to the viewer, image and language are separated into comprehensible image and incomprehensible language.

‘Content indifference’ is the result of teaching that only design matters. The essential test is how well each assists understanding the understanding of the content, not how stylish they are. You must know the meaning of the content to design it.

The point of information display is to assist analytical thinking. One common task is to make comparisons. Take the intellectual task (e.g. ‘make smart comparisons’) and turn them into design principles. Tasks become instructions to the design. Otherwise it’s just based on fashion or latest technology.

[He then had the lights turned up so people could view copies of Minard’s map of Napoleon’s Russian campaign in 1812. He used this to illustrate his Six Grand Principles of Analytical Design.]

  1. First Grand Principle of Analytical Design: show comparisons, contrasts, differences e.g. difference between those who left and those who returned.  Principles guide the design but also the content. A lot of his work is secretly about analytical thinking.
  2. Second Grand Principle of Analytical Design – show causality, dynamics, mechanisms, explanation. For policy thinking, intervention thinking – to produce an effect, you need to know about and govern the cause – show causality.  Thinking about how these are derived are producer commandments. But as they’re derived from fundamental intellectual task they’re also consumer tasks – you should be asking, as an audience, what is your task?  Minard’s map shows causality with temperature.
  3. Third Grand Principle of Analytical Design – show multivariate data. Three or more factors, variables. i.e. show more than two variables. Reality is inherently multivariable.Minard showed six dimensions – the size of army, direction, temperature, dates, location (lat,long). It’s not about the method of display. The design is so good that it’s invisible. Good web design has to be enormously self-effacing. The task is for users to understand information, not admire the interface. People should be too busy going about their business to notice the design.
  4. Fourth Grand Principle of Analytical Design – the principle of mode indifference – completely integrate all content. No segregation by mode of content. Videos and tables should be embedded in text, not set aside with captions elsewhere. Information don’t care what it is, cognitive tasks don’t care what the mode of production is. Minard had paragraphs of text, statistical bits, annotations all over.  Cognitive styles in approaching material – really good analysts are indifferent to the mode of evidence, spirit is ‘whatever it takes to explain it’. Driven by explanation. Enormous difference between process driven and content driven explanation. Academics make industry from process driven design but it should be whatever it takes to explain it – not what’s lying around, not what I’m good at.
  5. Fifth Grand Principle of Analytical Design – document everything and tell people about it. Document sources, scales, missing data. It’s the credibility argument. Two things you need to get across in a presentation – what the story is and why the audience should believe you. Audience has two tasks – trying to figure out the story and whether they can believe the presenter. An important way to have credibility is to have care and craft with respect to the data. Minard’s two paragraphs are about documentation – assumptions, scales of measurement. Minard was a great engineer who designed bridges and canals – this has the facticity of an engineer. Minard didn’t want quibbles about the facts – he wanted people to appreciate the disaster of war. It was meant as an anti-war poster right from the start. It was meant to show the horrors of war. Precision and accuracy in evidence helps his credibility.  Documentation is part of the fundamental quality control mechanism for preservation of credibility. As a consumer, you should be sceptical if people don’t say where the data came from e.g. URLs or full data sets. Very few people look at the original data but making sure it’s available is important.  Cherry picking is a big threat to the credibility of presenters – am I seeing the results of evidence, or of evidence selection? Providing source is a way of showing you’re not a cherry picker.  Overall, incompetence is more likely to be an explanation than conspiracy. Intimacy with the evidence helps convince of credibility.
  6. Sixth Grand Principle of Analytical Design – serious presentations largely stand or fall on the quality, relevance or integrity of the content. ‘Just fancy that.’ ‘ If that’s not true of presentations where you work, maybe you want to work somewhere else.’  His great insight into design from his books is that content matters, but ‘it’s a shame we live in a world where that counts as an insight’.The best way you can improve your presentation is to improve the content.
  7. [Then I think a Seventh Grand Principle of Analytical Design snuck in:] We want to try as much as we can to show information as adjacent in space than flip backwards in time. If information is stacked in time e.g. one slide after another, you have to try and make comparisons between something that’s gone away and something you’re not seeing. Important comparisons should be try to be made in the eye span. This seventh principle has all kinds of consequences for design. Power users have multiple monitors – trying to get more content real estate adjacent in space.

Digression ‘strange word, users’, only two industries describe their customers as users, illegal drug industry and computer industry.

The principles makes you think about how you display information to viewers – put the data in front of the user, show the comparison. The human eye is really good at comparing things, so having content rich screens and use just about every pixel that you can to carry content.

Trust the users optical capacity. New York Times has 400 links on its homepage. When working on a model for site for site reporting transparency, he suggested news sites.

User testing is not ‘having some temps come in and look your screen over’ but rather how your website performs in the wild. Know New York Times and Google News work because of the sheer number of visitors. Websites that are very successful in the wild provide models. Look at people who report – first rate news websites.

[He then turned to the sparklines handout.]

Bonus real live ‘Powerpoint sucks’ comment.
Sparklines – intense, high resolution display.
Graphics should have resolution of typography [not thickness of pencil]. ‘Graphics are no longer a special occasion.’ They can be anywhere that a word, image or number can be.

Grey band [in the handout ] is based on the types of tasks that clinicians want to do – they don’t care about normal values, only exceptions. [The whole visualisation is based on the task, the user and the context]

‘We want to be approximately right rather than accurately wrong’. An approximate answer to the right question is better than an accurate answer to the wrong question. [I think I misheard ‘accurately’ for ‘exactly’, judging by people’s tweets]

We’re subject to the recency effect – sparklines show most recent change but put it in context – patterns in change, other similarly shaped changes.

Data analytical design is about showing reality in flatland.

In response to questions: a lot of websites get corrupted because they’re pitching, bringing the ethics of the marketplace into the design – important alongside the intensity of a good news website is its spirit – reporting spirit, not pitching.

Qu re current trend for data visualisation e.g. artists animating visualisations
‘I think they can do exactly what they please’ One reason it’s alright is they’re not making other claims about the content, just using it as a found object.

[Finally, out of interest – you could compare these written notes to this sketched version of his talk by @lucyjspence.]

Links of interest – November 2009

I’ve fallen into the now-familiar trap of posting interesting links on twitter and neglecting my blog, but twitter is currently so transitory I figure it’s worth collecting the links for perusal at your leisure. Sometimes I’ll take advantage of the luxury of having more than 140 characters and add comments [in brackets].

  • ‘vision video’ for Project Natal – lots of UX challenges but the hardware and software sound amazing already http://procrastineering.blogspot.com/2009/06/project-natal.html [physical and gestural interfaces, spatial, facial recognition – all kinds of “we’re living in the future” stuff]
  • Museum website sharing… RT @LSpurdle: The project plan and final report for the Pre-Raphaelite project are here Pre-Raphaelite resource site
  • Thoughtful piece on twitter and nature of engagement at confs When Social Technologies Become AntiSocial (HT @jtrant) [part of an on-going debate about whether the ‘backchannel’ should be made public during conference presentations. My gut feeling is that it’s distracting, and as in this case, sometimes particularly unfair on the speaker. I do think twitter displays elsewhere in a conference work really well. The backchannel is so useful for all the social and peer connection stuff at conferences, but ultimately you’re in a session to listen to the speakers and most of us find concentrating on one thing for a long period of time difficult enough these days so might need all the help we can get.]
  • “Let’s make public speaking and public listening an art form.” spectacle at Web2.0 Expo… from my perspective (HT @zambonini) [danah boyd’s perspective on the event that triggered the above post]
  • No public back channel – ‘My vote would be to take the toy away from the kids until they can act old enough to use it.’ http://bit.ly/2GbzmH [public back channel again]
  • research gems: ‘it’s like a vicious circle, except it’s not that vicious, it’s just a circle’ http://is.gd/53noQ [just plain funny]
  • Brilliant for cultural heritage RT @givp RT @yunilee Unbelievable software turns average webcam into 3D scanner. http://tinyurl.com/ykpzc2e [not real time, I assume – but it could be brilliant for quick and dirty object digitisation]
  • RT @dannybirchall: What do you think of my new website? http://www.wellcomecollection.org/
  • Nice one! RT @richbs: Beautiful visualisation of V&A Collections from The Times on Saturday
  • Academic Journal Racket – ‘the IOP Physics package … is costing us an amount close to the annual salary of a lecturer.’
  • advertisers don’t get it. Using personal profiles for marketing messages destroys the value of the platform A Friend’s Tweet Could Be an Ad
  • V cool! RT @marialgilbert: Esquire magazine’s current issue includes augmented reality http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LGwHQwgBzSI Consumer buys ‘key’ to content.
  • Aren’t museums already broadcasters, on the internet? Or does TV trump YouTube? “Museums and broadcasters must work together” [I do have a blind spot around the ‘museums as broadcasters’ idea – maybe I already take it as a given, or maybe it’s because I don’t have a TV? @NickPoole1 has been tweeting about it a bit, but I think I prefer ‘museums as platform’ to ‘museums as broadcasters’. Spaces for learning, discussion, reflection. Possibly related to Clay Shirky’s talk at the Smithsonian – ‘If you think of every artefact as a latent community, much of social values comes from convening platforms available for people to start sharing value in communities of practice. … If you think value is only things that you buy and manage and control… being a platform increases value for and the loyalty of the people who go there.’]
  • Blimey! RT @bus_tops: The Illustrated Man: How LED Tattoos Could Make Your Skin a Screen
  • Amazed by these stats ‘MSN Hotmail’s remained the most popular email service provider’ at 33%, Yahoo 14%, Gmail 6% [It really annoys me that Nomensa don’t link to the original source for their stories. They post great content, but it’s unusable without proper attribution]
  • Nice one! RT @museweb:Museums and the Web Copyright Form reworked as a non-exclusive license [related: “really enjoyed this post from @lisadempster http://tr.im/EPzH about her personal experience as author publishing with Creative Commons”]
  • This is ace, I love museum trails ‘Same-sex desire and gender identity‘ at the British Museum
  • Not sure about PDF but useful still RT @zambonini: Just discovered www.tweetdoc.org – an easy way of saving (PDF) twitter search results
  • BBC bows to SEO‘ – longer headlines on story pages, shorter on indexes for same stories
  • RT @coscultcom we’ve listened to your comments and changed our criteria – do one thing and do it well. More info at Cosmic Collections – do one thing and do it well
  • Fail! RT @bwyman: MS’s IE9 team blog post about standards and interoperability requires a silverlight install http://is.gd/4YjAP
  • RT @Wittylama: new blog: my recommendation to #GLAM for the #wikimedia collab. with highest return for lowest risk http://bit.ly/2FGKZT
  • interesting but terrifying ‘The future of entertainment: outside the box‘ vs ‘reasons why adults and teens use online networks‘ (and next slide)
  • thoughtful discussion of the post-release life and impact of a museum API http://bit.ly/2MPqEi from @brooklynmuseum
  • ace posts on visualising museum data http://tr.im/FbsD http://tr.im/FbsT (and built in reading list if you’re into infovis) on Museum Pipes [also on infographics, infovis: “infographics xkcd style http://xkcd.com/657/large/“]
  • RT @bathlander: You can now search all the public collections of the Smithsonian in one place! http://collections.si.edu 2.3 million records
  • I love this comic because a) it’s about coffee and b) it’s an ace infographic
  • NMI at Walker Art Center are my heroes ‘New Media kills in the Walker’s pumpkin carving contest’ http://bit.ly/1FGstB (HT @danielincandela)
  • EU says you must accept browser cookies?! http://is.gd/4SI4Y No way, urgh (HT @benosteen)
  • Hmm, wonder if I could hook online coll pages RT @lorcanD: Virtual International Authority File. Thom Hickey article. http://bit.ly/2HKf6X
  • RT @librarianbyday: If Your Patrons Continually Use Your Catalog the Wrong Way the Problem Isn’t Them http://bit.ly/R1eH (via @NancyProctor)
  • The ‘What is keeping women out of technology?’ article confuses ‘technology’ with ‘networking’ http://bit.ly/2hcLTz [The ‘phone, handbag’ thing is ridiculous – even if it’s true, it doesn’t matter why you don’t answer the phone, and I’m pretty sure we have some methods for asynchronous communication these days – ooh, like voicemail, email, direct message… It’s a shame the author doesn’t really get around to addressing his original question, except to say that he doesn’t want to hear any of the reasons commonly given. Why ask then?]
  • RT @gkob:funny how well @stefanomaz summarizes the triplification hype RT @sclopit: Data Smoke and Mirrors http://bit.ly/5fJv3
  • “this is my freaking HOUSE” – issues with ‘the gathering clouds of a location-based privacy storm’ http://tr.im/EvTX [and] social media makes your privacy leaky, because as careful as you are, even geek friends can be unsavvy about privacy and social media
  • RT @elyw: check out Museum Victoria’s new History & Technology collections online
  • Excellent insight into problems with large sites RT @bwyman: American Airlines fires UX designer for caring too much http://is.gd/4O6q2
  • I can’t believe this kid is only 16. ‘Digital Open Winners: Australian Teen Crafts “Sneaky” Games’ http://bit.ly/2FzBoz
  • no idea where this link came from so no HT but wow! AR with movable screen shows what church would look like un-destroyed http://tr.im/E4BM
  • A response to A N Wilson in the Mail ‘An uncertain scientist’s guide to taking risks’ http://tr.im/E4xP Also good on climate change action [earlier tweet: “Ha ha ha, hilarious article by A N Wilson about the trouble with scientists. http://bit.ly/3jCVUc HT @benosteen“]
  • such a simple but brilliant accessibility idea – magnifier application in Nokia phones for help with fine print http://is.gd/4McVg
  • Excellent post – IMA’s Rob Stein on benefits and challenges of transparency and museums http://is.gd/4McL8
  • ALA on websites for learners… they ‘need an environment that is narrative, interactive, and discoverable.’ http://bit.ly/2FfzSL
And stuff I really must find time to read properly:
Finally, a tweet about an interview with me about the Cosmic Collections competition.
I really should group those tweets and replace all the shortened links with the full URLs but it’s already taken a surprisingly long time to put this post together.