Readings 10: Perception

Human vision is complex and fascinating (to me). Understanding it is beyond the scope of the class, but hopefully, you can learn some basics and see how it connects to visualization design. It’s so hard to pick just a small set of readings. I admit that this list starts to get long.

The most important “reading” is to watch a Steve Franconeri talk. He gave a virtual lecture on campus earlier this year, but the content is basically from the talk that he gave at the Open Vis Conference in 2018. This video is required.

  1. Steve Franconeri. Thinking with Data Visualizations, Fast and Slow, Open Vis Conference Talk, 2018 (via YouTube).

The readings aren’t as plentiful as they might seem: the Ware and Cairo chapters are fairly light, and get the key points across (you don’t need as much of the details). You don’t need to read the Healy and Enns paper - just look at the demos. The 39 studies in 30 minutes posting is totally skimmable - it’s a 30 minute talk, but you can get the key ideas quickly.

The main readings are the Ware chapters, since it’s a good introduction to the basics of perception, and its impact on design. Chapter 6 of Cairo is useful because it considers “higher level” perceptual issues. I also include Cairo Chapter 5 (as optional) because it’s redundant with Ware, but it’s fun to see his (less scientific) take on it. And look at Chris Healy’s web page to get a sense of pre-attentive effects.

In prior years, I made #2 here a requirement early in the semester. This semester it was optional, multiple times. If you haven’t read it already…

  1. The Dance of Meaning (Chapter 9 of Visual Thinking for Design) (Ware-9-Meaning.pdf 2.7mb)

    Yes, we’re reading the last chapter first. It’s basically a summary of the book, followed by the implications - which makes it a pretty self-contained introduction to the perceptual motivations of visualization. It points out some things about how we see, and then tells us how that can help us make effective visualizations. It’s an unusual, informal book (see the discussion), we’ll read more of it later in the semester.

After that, you should read more of Ware. If reading 3 chapters of Ware is too much, I would say Chapter 3 is the least important of all of the readings.

  1. Visual Queries (Chapter 1 of Visual Thinking for Design) (Ware-1-VisualQueries.pdf 2.5mb)
  2. What We Can Easily See (Chapter 2 of Visual Thinking for Design) (Ware-2-EasilySee.pdf 2.1mb)
  3. (optional, but recommended) Structuring Two Dimensional Space (Chapter 3 of Visual Thinking for Design) (Ware-3-StructuringSpace.pdf 2.6mb)

After Ware and Franconeri, you might be interested in Cairo’s non-scientific take on visual cognition. Below in the optional section you can find his non-scientific take on perception.

  1. Visualizing for the Mind (Chapter 6 of The Functional Art) (theFunctionalArtCh6.pdf 8.1mb)

Note for this next one: You can just look at the pictures and demos. Actually, this one is kindof optional since I will show most of the things in class.

  1. (somewhat optional) Look at the pre-attention demos and pictures in the old version of Chris Healey’s web survey of perceptual principles for vis. The paper (optional, below) is much better in terms of explaining things - but it’s too much to require as reading.

This one is worth a skim. Yes, this list is getting long. But its so hard to cut.

  1. 39 Studies about human perception in 30 minutes. By Kennedy Elliot. Medium Posting.

    This gives you the punch line of 39 different perception studies very quickly. What’s great about this is that it gets at “what can we learn from design from each of this.” While understanding the experiments is interesting (especially if you are a researcher trying to design new experiments), the basic takeaway is often what you need to influence design.

Perception: Optional

Perceptual science is a whole field, so we’re just touching the surface. Even just the beginnings of what is relevant to visualization. It’s hard for me not to require these…

  • The Eye and Visual Brain (Chapter 5 of The Functional Art) (theFunctionalArtCh5.pdf 5.4mb) Optional - Cairo’s take on it. More based on his experience as a designer.

  • Healey, C. G., & Enns, J. T. (2012). Attention and Visual Memory in Visualization and Computer Graphics. IEEE Transactions on Visualization and Computer Graphics, 18(7), 1170–1188. (pdf) (doi)

    This is a good survey of basic perception stuff that is useful for vis. In this past, this was required reading. Warning: this survey is a little dense, but it gets the concepts across with examples. Don’t worry about the theory so much. Get a sense of what the visual system does (through the figures, and the descriptions of the phenomena), and skip over the theories of how it does it (unless you’re interested). There is an older, online version as Chris Healy’s web survey which has lots of cool pre-attention demos. But the text in the paper is much better, and the paper includes more things.

  • Franconeri, S. L. (2013). The Nature and Status of Visual Resources. In D. Reisberg (Ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Cognitive Psychology (pp. 1–16). Oxford University Press. (pdf) (doi)

    This is a survey, similar to Healey and Enns above, but written more from the psychology side. The first part, where he characterizes the various kinds of limitations on our visual system is something I’ve found really valuable. The latter parts, where he discusses some of the current theories for why these limitations happen is interesting (to me), but less directly relevant to visualization (since it is mainly trying to explain limits that we need to work around). I think these explanations may lead to new ideas for visualization – but its less direct of a path.

  • Albers, D., Correll, M., Gleicher, M., & Franconeri, S. (2014). Ensemble Processing of Color and Shape: Beyond Mean Judgments. Journal of Vision, 14(10), 1056–1056. (paper page) (doi)

    We (Steve, myself, and some of our students) have written a survey paper on some other things the visual system can do (and why it can matter for vis). We call it “visual aggregation” and in psychology they call it “ensemble encoding.” It might be useful to skim through for the pictures and diagrams. I will talk about this stuff (at least the work that we did) in class.