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Stories Are Gateways Into Worlds

Moritz Stefaner recently wrote a posting titled Worlds, not stories. He basically argues that while there is a clear role for the designer of a visualization, the result should be a world that users can explore, rather than a story that they’re told. I have a few things to say about this, and will do so in two parts. This is part one.

Moritz views an audience that watches a story as mere consumers, while he wants them to be active. He has also said that visualizations don’t need punchlines. I don’t disagree with any of that. However, I think Moritz has a view of what a story is and how it interacts with the visualization that is much too narrow.

Interactive Worlds

Worlds that the user can explore are nothing new in visualization. This is the way visualization has worked since it got that name: show the user data, give them some tools to navigate around (whether in 3D space or by using filters, etc.), and let them explore.

Exploration and analysis work like that, and they’re obviously useful. There is nothing wrong with using a tool to open up such a world, or with providing such a world to a user who has a sense of what to do there.

But many times, a bit more guidance is helpful. Perhaps the user is reading a news story and has never thought about this type of data before, and doesn’t know what questions to ask or where to start exploring. Perhaps the user is a colleague who doesn’t know the specific data you’re working with and has no idea which of the fifty visualizations you’re sending him is the most important, and where to start. Perhaps the user doesn’t actually know much about visualization, so you have to provide some introduction and guidance not just for the data, but also how to read the visualization, how to interact, etc.

The Power of Story

There is no better way to illustrate what it means to tell a clear and powerful story using data than Hans Rosling’s famous TED 2007 talk. If you haven’t seen it before, watch it. If you have seen it before, and you think you know it, watch it again. It’s a revelation every time I watch it, and I have seen it dozens of times.

Notice what he does: he tells his story entirely based on numbers. There are no pictures of starving children or empty deserts. Not a single photograph! It’s amazing how powerful this story is, despite its distance and lack of a clearly identified individual (which you’d typically find in stories because we relate much better to individuals than to abstract groups).

And where does he start from? The problem is not that people haven’t heard about poverty or the difference in life expectancy. The problem is not ignorance, but preconceived ideas that are outdated and wrong. Would you explore this data if you thought you already knew what was in it? The story here grabs you, shakes you awake, and makes you pay attention even though you thought you already knew the answer.

Again, watch it. You won’t find many better uses for 18 minutes of your time.

Stories That Lead Into Worlds

It is often important to lead people into a world. Rosling does that so people question their preconceived ideas and pay attention. Journalists do that when they try to tell you about something they want you to know and care about, but which you may never have heard about. And activists and non-profits do that when they want you to pay attention to the cause they are pursuing.

Right now, we mostly get one or the other: a great story with very little exploration at the end, or an exploratory tool with little or now introduction. That makes it a bit more difficult to see where things are headed, but I am sure that we’ll soon see good examples that are strong on both ends.

Since I mentioned Hans Rosling above: gapminder World (requires Flash) actually lets you explore the data yourself, and you can take his talk as the introductory story leading you into it. It’s not quite the same, since the talk is much better than the tool, but it illustrates the idea.

Stories That Guide and Support

Stories are great vehicles to get people interested, to give them some orientation, and to guide them far enough into a world so that they can do their own exploration.

There is no contradiction between stories and exploration. Not only can they coexist, they enhance each other. The story pulls you in and gently pushes you along, the exploratory visualization lets you uncover new findings and stories yourself.

Teaser image by Anthony Albright, used under creative commons.

Posted by Robert Kosara on March 23, 2014.