Abstract and Metaphoric visualization of emotionally sensitive data




Malik, Mona

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Standard visualizations such as bar charts and scatterplots, especially those representing qualitative, emotionally sensitive issues, fail to build a connection between the data that the visualization represents and the viewer of the visualization. To address this challenge, the information visualization community has become increasingly interested in exploring creative visualization techniques that could potentially help viewers relate to the suffering and pain in emotionally sensitive data. We contribute to this open question by investigating whether visualizations that rely on metaphors (i.e., that involve existing mental images such as a tree or a person image) with some emotional connection can foster viewers’ empathy and engagement with the data. Specifically, we conducted an empirical study in which we compare the effect of visualization type (metaphoric and abstract) on people’s engagement and empathy when exposed to emotionally sensitive data (data about sexual harassment in academia). We designed a metaphoric visualization that relies on the metaphor of a flower symbolizing life, beauty, and fragility which might help the viewers to relate to the victim, build some emotional connection, and an abstract visualization that relies on purely geometric forms with which people should not have any existing emotional connection. In our study, we found no clear difference in engagement and empathy between metaphoric and abstract visualization. Our findings indicate that female participants were slightly more engaged and empathic with both visualizations compared to other participants. Additionally, we learned that measuring empathy in a data visualization is a complex task. Informed by these findings on how people engage and empathize with metaphoric and abstract visualization, newer and improved visualization and experiences can be developed for similar emotionally sensitive topics that are emotionally charged and fear-provoking.