There is a new promising service looking to alter the media landscape. Visual.ly tries to bring visualization to the masses. Content creation that was once the realm of specialists is now accessible to everyone, or so the service claims.
This prosumer trend of empowering consumers to become creators themselves is older than hardware stores and not restricted to design circles, but certain professions seemed to hold much less public appeal to DIY than others, crunching data being one of them. And yet time and time again new tools have changed the way we interact with information. Looking at visually I was immediately reminded of one particular tool that forever changed the lives of office workers across all professions.
That tool is Powerpoint.
A comparison with the infamous software is not necessarily a coveted one because Powerpoint does have a bad reputation for obscuring rather than helping communication in many cases. For all the good things Powerpoint has done (more on that later) it did open Pandora’s box of bullet point hell and was just too much for most users to handle responsibly.
The problem with Powerpoint is not that it is a bad tool. The problem is that albeit created for the purpose of empowering users to create visually enriched presentations the tool did nothing to promote thusly augmented communication. Quite on the contrary.
Chances are you suffered through more than one bullet point riddled snooze fest. Be it in college or the workspace, slides are everywhere and they are still proliferating at an accelerating pace. In a sense the tool has become the product. Send me the powerpoint by tomorrow, will you?
Today everyone can build slides. And everyone uses bullet points. The templates that were built in to Powerpoint set the example after which the unsuspecting office worker builds her slides. These unfortunate examples of slide design have in turn entered the mental model of presentations for the average customer. Thus popular practice of presentation design today is riddled with unhelpful and even detrimental standards.
Before Powerpoint and its templates there was no popular presentation design standard. There were people doodling away on chalk boards, overhead projectors and flip charts. And then there were a few specialist designers crafting slides by hand for expensive presentation equipment.
The world of information design and visualization currently resembles this divide between experts and consumers before powerpoint. Granted, visualization is more salient as a popular concept than slide design was, but prosumers are still few and far between. And lest you wonder what all this entails for visual.ly bear in mind the picture I painted of how Powerpoint proliferated its standards among newly empowered users.
Now, please look at the promotional infographic that visual.ly lets you create with just a handful of mouse clicks and keyboard entries. How much information is encoded in these 500x2103 pixels?
The assertion that my tweets bear zero interestingness stings, but I suspect that there was a technical problem with the twitter API to resolve my data. I do use twitter several times a day and tweet about communication resources, cognitive science and the occasional pop culture reference. However, visual.ly’s failure to recognize me as the bestest twitterer of them all is not my concern.
I do take issue with the fact that this infographic is the standard they are setting. With all respect to the talented designers at visual.ly, the terrible, terrible signal to noise ratio of the piece goes against everything I am trying to accomplish as a communication architect. How much information about me did you gather from this infographic? Did any of the embellishments and design choices help you grasp the information or make it more accessible to digest at least?
This is a far cry from a helpful visualization. Heck, it’s almost a poster child for everything that is wrong with lazy, uninformed information design and it is promoted as the example for do-it-yourself visualization? Are you kidding me?
Contrary to what my vitriol might have you think I don’t actually mean to bash the folks at visual.ly but rather hope to partake in a debate of how to improve communication standards. The toxic influence of bad standards released into the public, as demonstrated by the Powerpoint example, is something I would like help prevent to happen again. And I do think that visual.ly can play a decisive role in this.
We can see how public perception of visualizations is shifting now that web poster art has turned into the latest hype to generate clicks. While users get to see much more visual display of information (much of it of a fast food standard, mind you) they don’t get to learn what constitutes good practice or what tools are needed to create good infographics.
The outline of a hurtful mental model is already showing: Venture Beat quotes the co-founder of visual.ly:
Please take a gander at this wonderful series on essential visualization resources and try to find Photoshop. Infographics are not about pixel manipulation and Photoshop is not even a great tool for creating art work from scratch. And yet, in the public eye infographics are something a designer creates with photoshop. Data is conspicuously absent.
Visual.ly could change all that. There are some great things about visual.ly that are likely to provide beneficial impact to the world of infographic design. One is that it transforms the medium of infographics by giving it a platform where peers, amateurs and professionals alike, share their work and thus their ideas. Think of what slideshare did to the public perception of presentations.
This is perhaps the best thing powerpoint has done: It has propelled the medium of presentations into popularity and paved the way for other services to build upon it. Powerpoint has become a great tool for the skilled user to create amazing content both to accompany speeches or to be used in exaptations of powerpoint, like poster design in academia or the presentation spin off of online slide shows.
The one thing we must make sure is to empower users to create meaningful content. To do so we must protect them from mental models that would limit their design choices to bad eye candy. If the folks at visual.ly are with me on this, their platform would be a boon to educate and inspire, while providing a unique tool that helps users create their own visualizations.
Today marks the birthday of one master of pop science in the best sense of the word. Love him or hate him—and boy does being a pop science hero mean that every media luddite and their mum will reference your work without ever reading it—this professor of literature could write some clairvoyant catch phrases with mass appeal. Marshall McLuhan would have turned a hundred years, had he lived to see the day.
What better occasion to commemorate his work and actually engage in some, you know, science? One great resource for people who like to look beyond the infamous “5-things-binge-drinking-with-me-mates-in-Thailand-taught-me-about-communication posts” is the open access (free, as in free beer) Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication. To get you started I put forth an article to remind you of the way McLuhan thought of media. “The Role of Social Network Sites in Romantic Relationships: Effects on Jealousy and Relationship Happiness.”
There are several trends converging in presentation design and new technologies for the distribution channel you might know as the Internet. Be it apps, html5 authoring tools or UX design standards, we are currently witnessing new developments and trends for both creation and delivery of content at an escalating pace.
While my personal favorite for streamlined visual content creation and delivery still remains the implementation of the SVG standard, the html5 slide template by Google herself shows that the big guys are on the move. So brush up your communication skills and start contemplating where this is going, or better yet, participate in the evolution of media and help shape the way information is shared.
Check out html5slides yourself. Courtesy of iframes you can even navigate the example file right here. Click inside the frame and then advance with your left and right arrow keys. You may even swipe on your touch devices to boot.
Unfortunately the presentation is not scaled to fit my iframe and does not play nice with my resizing code. Ah, well, perhaps you better just have a look in your very own browser tab…
Technodeterminism is one of the cardinal sins of communicators. When you are overwhelmed by complexity you might feel drawn to a one stop shop promising all the answers like “the Internet makes us stupid” or “the Internet will bring democracy for all.” Don’t give in. You will be blinded to the functional and sociological aspects of communication if you do.
The rules by which the interaction of man and machine is governed are never determined by machines. Ultimately humans are the agents to the tools they create. This is not to say that people are naturally good at working with technology. Most of us suck at using the tools at our disposal. But is that really the fault of our tools?
It is complexity that looks to rob us of our agentivity, not technology. The intricate rules and conventions of media use are being worked out by an amorphous mass that makes us feel like we are mere subjects to the process. Which we are. But we are the driving force behind it as well, each and every one of us. The choices we make as a collective determine the course of our social and technological evolution.
The concept of the filter bubble is a great example of our struggle with complexity. Eli Pariser happens upon a valid observation and creates well deserved awareness about it: The very dystopian experience of finding computer algorithms selectively hiding information from you when you look for it. Based on past browsing and search behavior these algorithms by Google and its ilk decide what kind of information you are more likely to like and filter out results that are in conflict with your profile. This is eerily close to what Robin Sloan and Matt Thompson were warning against with their video EPIC 2014.
But the filtering of information is actually an attempt to make the results of your search more relevant to you. The algorithms are taking a cue from nature here. One of the most promising solutions to target complexity is using filters. It’s what your brain is doing all the time and unless the task happens to be spotting gorillas among basketball players your brain usually does a great job at getting you through life safe and sound.
However, since a medium creates another layer of filtering information the crucial task is to carefully select filters that maintain a representative or predictive power. The model of the world you create with them needs to provide enough of an approximation to the complex reality of an unfiltered world for you to make sound decisions. Put it differently: You need to select filters that help you understand the world rather than obfuscate it. The relevance algorithms fail in that account.
Eli, in turn, fails to appreciate the problem that these filters try to address in his reductionist tagline “What the Internet Is Hiding From You.” The Internet is not hiding anything, I am inclined to shout in frustration. You are just too lazy to use it. It is your selection of tools and your application of these tools to your purported goal that is hiding stuff from you. Heck, the concept of evoked set has had marketing people manipulate your choices for decades and you don’t even know you are turning a blind eye to this when you resort to technological determinism.
The problem with media and filters is that humans generally have a hard time using them. One of the hardest things to do, for example, is acknowledge that your filter is failing you and let it go. Just look at macroeconomics. The field is full of experts who cling to models that have proven unsuccessful time and time again in their predictions of consumer behavior and world finance.
And yet when you have invested lots of time and effort to acquire a sophisticated skill set (which is in its essence a bundle of filtering algorithms) it is very natural to be reluctant to admit that your tools are useless. Instead of moving on people tend to double down and try even more of the same. Which is why monkeys throwing darts often fare better at predicting the future than experts who rely on institutionalized knowledge.
It’s not technology that deprives you of alternative views, it’s you. First off, it is your brain that denies you unfiltered access. All sorts of biases are constantly seeing to it that you can continue your precious self involved little illusion that your actions and motives are just and those of your fellow humans coherent, if at times unreasonable.
Psychology aside the greatest hurdle to you gaining access to unfiltered information is that none of us are growing up to understand media, even though our communication relies on it. We use media all the time. We use them even before we are born and yet we know almost nothing about them apart from the conventions that we associate with them. Yes, I am probably using the term medium differently than you are used to.
Everything that lets you share information about the world is a medium. Your index finger is probably the first medium you actively used. Point. Look. Very basic conventions and easy to grasp. Speech is one of the most powerful media available to you. So much potential to share information, so much nuance.
But even the mere pointing at things is but a convention that has been established to make use of the functional constraints of extending your index finger: Your ability to discern objects from another. Your inference of selecting one object by tracing the visual cue in a shared field of vision. Your attribution of intentionality to the act of pointing. You are constantly using many more such properties that are necessary to communicate without ever thinking about them or knowing they exist. How likely is it that you have explored a medium like the internet to its fullest potential?
Some basic knowledge about how media work and how to use them would go a long way to help people get access to relevant information. As it is, the filter bubble in your head is the greatest obstacle. Not the internet.
Shortly after I posted my guide on how to create Keynote shapes from photos Christian Holz (@cholz) has taken it upon him to create a command line utility that works with the most recent MacOS. Using his tool you can just drag and drop files into the terminal to convert svg documents to Keynote documents on the fly. The tool is still in beta but judging from his previous work chances are good he’ll improve svg2keynote soon.
So head on over to Christian Holz to download the file and get crackin’.