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Is there any solid experimental evidence on how successful infographics are at getting the viewer of the graphic to think about the data presented, understand it, and retain that understanding, relative to other types of data presentation?

What is in scope for this question?

  • Solid experimental evidence about
  • how successful infographics are at getting the reader to
  • think about the data, understand it, and retain the understanding.

What is out of scope?

  • anecdote
  • opinion
  • any other form of data visualisation than infographics
  • data visualisation in general rather than infographics in particular
  • answers that do not present solid experimental evidence, but use arguments such as "publication X uses them so they must be good"
  • impacts other than the effect on the readers reading, understanding and retention of the information

What is an infographic?

An infographic one specific format that combines illustrative art, text, and data visualisations, to present a narrative about a set of data on a common theme. Several data visualisations do that, but the infographic is a breed of its own, so I've given an example is given below. They are commonly found in popular media, and very rarely found in academic literature.

The audience under consideration

I'm thinking specifically of an audience that has sufficient visual ability to read the infographic in its graphical form, and is sufficiently literate and numerate to understand what's contained in it.

enter image description here
(original from Kathy Schrock's guide to everything. I don't think this is any worse than a thousand other examples of the genre)

(I have at least found a little peace with infographics now, by thinking of them as a tiny, stupid version of academic conference posters.)

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    Ask someone who uses a screen reader how much information they got out of it. – JonW Nov 27 '14 at 22:14
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    I think they do work but no every infographic is good. People seem to think if you just cram a bunch of numbers, graphs and icons it would be much better than plain text paragraphs but this is not true. There is a lot to think about when building an infographic - one of the key things being the use of whitespace (most of them seemed just to crowded with info). – McKnight Nov 28 '14 at 10:37
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    @JonW - Judging a fish by its ability to fly? :) If you know (part of) your audience is vision-impaired (or uses screen readers for other reasons) you wouldn't use the info-graphic in the first place. While there's a place for "depends on the audience" in any answer to this question, you'd have to prioritize non-vision-impaired audiences to find the real value. – Dirk v B Nov 30 '14 at 22:47
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    Mostly they're just put together by marketing departments as a way of having something clickbait-y to share on social media. And doing it as a graphic means they don't have to have any web development skill - just farm it off to a graphic designer somewhere who can produce a 5mb image to throw up on a blog somewhere. They're not really about providing information in any meaningful sense. – JonW Dec 1 '14 at 13:50
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    Honestly, a list of well labeled graphs would be just as effective as an infographic. maybe more so. – dmacfour Dec 2 '14 at 0:43
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A recent (2013) paper from the information visualization community looked at a related problem, namely: "What makes a visualization memorable?" They reasoned that:

"Clearly, a more memorable visualization is not necessarily a more comprehensible one. However, knowing what makes a visualization memorable is a step towards answering higher level questions like “What makes a visualization engaging?” or “What makes a visualization effective?."

They conducted the largest scale visualization study at the time, using 2070 single panel visualizations, and collected memorability scores through Amazon Mechanical Turk. The did note that their study:

"examined the memorability of visualizations as if they were images and not memorability based on engagement and comprehension of the visualization."

Their results aligned with those from previous studies. Specifically, they found that

"visualizations with low data-to-ink ratios and high visual densities (i.e., more chart junk and "clutter") were more memorable than minimal, "clean" visualizations. It appears that we are best at remembering "natural" looking visualizations, as they are similar to scenes, objects, and people, and that pictorial and rounded features help memorability."

The paper is really interesting, in that it covered different categories of visualizations, from traditional infographics, to those found in scientific publications, graphics generated by governments/world organizations, and the news media. I would recommend that you read it in full. You may also be interested in some of the references in their background section that point to "chart junk", and the surprising findings (at the time) of its effectiveness.

  • Thanks for this. But it doesn't really answer the question. I'm not really interested in whether the images were memorable. I'm interested in whether the data is comprehensible and retained. And that wasn't studied in this paper at all - all they did was see if people spotted duplicate images. There may have been some ambiguity in my question, as to the referent for "it" in "and retain it", so I've edited to remove that ambiguity. I apologise for any inconvenience caused by that ambiguity. – EnergyNumbers Dec 1 '14 at 19:28
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    The best I can do is to then point you to the references in the paper. Specifically the study by Bateman (2010) that investigated comprehension and cognitive recall, and the subsequent critique by Few (2011). I'm not aware of recent work that answers your question directly. – CJF Dec 1 '14 at 20:16
  • I added an edit to the question to expand a quote which acutally started "Clearly, a more memorable visualization is not necessarily a more comprehensible one." So, this question although it doesn't answer your question fully, recognises that it is a step towards answering your actual question and I suspect is about as good as you will get. There would have to be research that took this data further which doesn't appear to exist. – icc97 Jun 17 '16 at 13:29
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Funnily enough, here is an infographic on why info-graphics are successful in todays web space, with some actual statistics behind it:

http://neomam.com/interactive/13reasons/

However in summary they are utilized extensively because:

  • Infographics are simple (no danger of information overload)
  • Infographics are visually appealing (more appealing so more willingness to invest)
  • Infographics are foolproof (more comprehendable than plain text or excel sheets)
  • Infographics compliment modern social media

Hope this helps somewhat..

  • Ironically, this I found this infographic harder to read than the average infographic. The way they emphasized certain words seemed to overpower the surrounding sentences, and makes it hard to gain information without reading the entire sentence. – dmacfour Dec 1 '14 at 21:56
  • Thanks, but none of the information on that link provides any experimental evidence on inforgraphics that I can see. If I've missed it, please do pull it out explicitly, and cite the reference. – EnergyNumbers Dec 1 '14 at 22:12
  • This is a good answer as to why 'web infographics' are succesful marketing tools. But we should note that they are rarely succesful at communicating anything meaningful. They often aren't designed for that purpose to begin with. – DA01 Dec 2 '14 at 4:15
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Tufte has spent his entire career on this topic. If you're not familiar with Tufte, you should be:

http://www.edwardtufte.com/tufte/

But note that what he talks about (visualizing data) is not necessarily the same thing as the 'infographic internet trend' of the past 4 years or so. The latter rarely has anything to do with meaningful data communication and everything to do with click bait, spam, and gray-hat SEO.

If you see it on Facebook, it's likely not a graphic put together to produce intelligent interpretation of complex data, but rather just some eye candy to get you to click a link.

UPDATE:

OK, based on your comments, I think you're referring to the latter. The types of infographics you see posted to facebook and twitter and the like over the past several years.

I don't know if there is research on data retention based on this particular infographics, but I highly doubt it--as that is not the purpose of these infographics. They are meant to be visual eye candy and entertainment. The end-goal is to get you to click their link. It's advertising.

As for Tufte, there's nothing outdated about his work. Besides the fact that he's still publishing work, he focuses on the broader issue that you're asking about...using visuals to help "think about the data presented, understand it, and retain that understanding".

If you haven't read his books, and if you are truly interested in this topic, do go read them. It's an invaluable set of resources for anyone interested in displaying data visually.

The problem we have today is that over the past several years, we've just been bombarded with really poorly designed infographics. Lots of them are full of irrelevant data, bad (or completely incorrect) visualizations, and (a term Tufte coined) plenty of "chart junk" and irrelevant eye candy.

Which--to be fair--is maybe their purpose. Again, those latter types of infographics are less about communicating complex data and more about marketing.

  • This doesn't seem to attempt to answer the question. – EnergyNumbers Dec 2 '14 at 7:40
  • @EnergyNumbers the question is flawed. Infographics, of the kind you show in your post, aren't designed to get people to "think about the data presented, understand it, and retain that understanding". They're merely there as an advertisement. If you're asking about the other kind--what I would call "traditional"-- information graphics, then Tufte will have all the answers for you. – DA01 Dec 2 '14 at 7:52
  • Thanks, but I really did know what I wanted to ask, and I've asked it. What I've asked is what I'm seeking an answer to. (If I'd wanted to ask "what was the state of the art in data visualisation 30 years ago", I'd have asked it, and I agree that Tufte's "The Visual Display..." would indeed have been the answer to that question.) – EnergyNumbers Dec 2 '14 at 7:57
  • @EnergyNumbers then you really need to clarify your question. Are you asking about information design, ala Tufte--the kind of stuff you'd see in reputable newspapers, for example, or are you asking about the type of infographics you have posted as an example--the kind of stuff you see on facebook with titles like "10 amazing creative facts you didn't know about clowns?". While they may share a similar info-name, they serve very different purposes. – DA01 Dec 2 '14 at 8:04
  • I'm pretty sure there's no ambiguity there. I've re-read it and tried to see how you might think it was about generic data visualisation, but I can't manage it. And even if it had been, "Tufte" has been an outdated answer for at least a decade. – EnergyNumbers Dec 2 '14 at 13:34
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I consider this a loaded question because the extent to which infographics (and data visualizations) can be useful depends on how well they are conceived and executed.

So your question about evidence for:

  • how successful infographics are at getting the viewer of the graphic to think about the data presented --> if done well (e.g. NYT, Guardian, Economist) then YES.
  • understand it, and retain that understanding, relative to other types of data presentation? --> well, it depends on the type of content you want to present and the objective, audience, etc. Infographics may not be the most useful compared to a text only report, so MAYBE.
  • Can you provide any solid experimental evidence for your first bullet point? – EnergyNumbers Jun 16 '16 at 5:47
  • Or your second? – EnergyNumbers Jun 16 '16 at 5:53
  • @EnergyNumbers The point I am trying to make is that anything done well will have positive effects. You are probably a little bit disappointed with infographics because you haven't seen too many good examples. The other point is that infographics is not suitable for presenting everything, so it is difficult to just say whether it is going to work well or not relative to other types of data presentation because it depends on what you are trying to present. – Michael Lai Jun 16 '16 at 7:09
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I did a Google search for 'cognitive retention of infographics' and, by following the link to 'Scholarly Articles', found that the top three articles relate to your question.

Of the two studies that I had access to, the first stated in its abstract that there is no difference in learning between those using infographics and those using graphics + text, however those using infographics retained the information for longer.

The second stated that infographic instruction was an effective instrument to help the learners in the study.

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