Visualization Tools as Cognitive Artifacts, by Donald Norman

Originally published December 20, 2004

The power of the unaided mind is highly overrated” and, one could argue, the goal of information visualization is to provide some of the necessary aid. I made that statement in my 1993 book “Things that make us smart,” where I argued that “cognitive artifacts” have greatly enhanced our capabilities. The most important of these artifacts is that of representation, whether it be by the written word or notational systems (as for music, dance, mathematics, and engineering) or diagrams, graphs, and artistic renderings.

This special interest group on visualization is clearly an essential component of the development of ever-more powerful cognitive artifacts. Your job is to develop and apply the principles of information display in a form appropriate to the human sensory, perceptual, and cognitive systems. The term “visualization” should be generalized to include all perceptual systems, including auditory, spatio-temporal, and tactile senses, as well as motor output (and, of course, a person’s “output” is the computer system’s “input”). Our perceptual systems are tuned to help the body navigate through space, with a very tight coupling among the various senses as well as with the motor system, the musculature of the body that responds to and propels us through space.

To me, the most exciting new developments are those of total immersion, where the visual space extends around the body, where the acoustic milieu is powerful and informative, and where tactile input and body motion are all coupled together into a seamless experience. The potential for allowing true exploration of rich, complex data sets is exciting. Today, the exploration of complex data is more akin to batch processing than real-time interaction. One must select vantage points and dimensions of interest. Displays have to be manually changed. It doesn’t feel live, nor interactive, nor compelling: the act of specifying the display detracts from one’s focus and concentration upon the task.

This is one of the most exciting – and difficult of endeavors. It requires expertise in the topic domain, in computation, in the display of auditory, visual, and tactile information, and in the development of new input devices to sense the person’s actions and locations. It requires knowledge of human perceptual system and of technology. It’s a great, wonderful challenge where as much can be learned form artists as from science. Go for it!

Donald A. Norman, Palo Alto, CA
Nielsen Norman Group
Prof. Computer Science, Cognitive Science & Psychology
Northwestern University,