The way data enters the mind, whether in a completely idle form or a highly energetic, animated form, influences how we relate to it. The initial moment of meeting between an object and an observer is the pre-attentive phase. The observer is looking for visual cues from the object, be it body language, clothes, or facial gestures, to determine if the object is a threat or a safe “other.” This happens in the animal part of the brain.
Thus, one of the most crucial moment in the relationship between the object and the observer, is the moment before the rational brain is engaged. This is just as true in visualizing data as it is in interaction between people. Instead of body language we have visual animation of the visualization’s elements. Instead of clothes we have graphical skin. And instead of facial gestures we have easing functions and such. However, for reasons to do with the limitation of the print medium the pre-attentive phase had been largely ignored in the science and practice of data visualization. The neglect of the pre-attentive phase continued into the internet age, mainly due to the lack of proper tools for animating data but also because the emphasis on the rational in our culture, which is finally beginning to give room to the less known “irrational logic” of relationship, which extends to the relationship between object and and observer (or beholder — for physical goods.)
It’s not just how something functions that determines our relationship to it but also how it enters our mind upon first meeting it: is it sudden contact with rigid form? including with one that might react to our interaction with it? or is it a meeting with an organically animated form that reacts to our touch and motion? The last form is ingrained by evolution in the “relating” part of our brain, so it’s more intuitive.
In the print scenario of data visualization, we experience sudden contact with a rigid form that we then have to dissect and understand. Whereas on the web, the data can engage our mind in a pre-attentive dance with possibility, and the more graceful and well choreographed the dance is the more animated we feel about the data. That is the true meaning of relating. And we can think of data visualization as a visual poem, each word or piece of data entering our mind in harmony with all others, and becoming meaningful in our body prior to entering our cerebral cortex. It’s that visceral reaction to the experience of seeing data that makes it memorable. But in the end it is about paying roughly equal attention to the pre-attentive and the cognitive phases of realization that will create a pleasant and effectual experience for the user. The tricky part is that we, as designers, must access different parts of ourselves in designing the optimal experience for both the cognitive and pre-attentive parts of the journey from the screen to the inner mind, so that the data literally dances its way to our cerebral cortex, and rather than demand our attention it calls it into being without conscious thinking on our part.
We’ve taken this theory of engagement and we’re building our data visualization with focus on both the irrational and rational (or pre-attentive and analytical phases) and the initial result have gotten strong favorable reactions from our friends and colleagues. Below is a video we’ve made of the first attempt: