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On the Importance of Pre-Attentive Cues in Data Visualization

In Uncategorized on April 15, 2013 at 2:26 pm

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 animal part of our brain looks for visual cues from the object to determine the initial visceral response to the stimulus.

One of the most crucial moment in the relating between the object and us, is the moment before our rational mind is engaged.. This is just as true in visualizing data as it is in interaction with everything around us. However, for reasons to do with the limitation of the print medium this crucial pre-attentive phase was up till recently largely ignored in the science and practice of data visualization. The neglect of the pre-attentive cues actually continued into the internet age, mainly due to the lack of refined tools for presenting data, but also because the emphasis on the purely rational and practical in our culture, which is finally beginning to give room to the cognitive science of relating.

It’s not just how something works that determines our relationship to it but also how it enters our mind upon first meeting it: is it a rigid and fixed form, basically mechanical and non-fluid, or an interaction that carries as much pre-attentive information as when meeting someone for the first time?

In the print scenario of data visualization, we experience contact with a rigid form that we then have to analyze and understand from a static starting point. 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 poetry in motion, with each word or piece of data entering our mind in harmony or artful juxtaposition with the others, and becoming meaningful in the pre-attentive phase of discovery prior to being rationally interacted. It’s that first visceral reaction to the experience of seeing data that makes it memorable and sticky in our mind. 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.

I’ve taken this somewhat fantasized 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 users. Below is a video we’ve made of the first attempt:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hcv5PhMLniE

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