Visualizations of binary data: A comparative evaluation

Michael D. Lee, Marcus A. Butavicius, Rachel E. Reilly

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

23 Citations (Scopus)


Data visualization has the potential to assist humans in analysing and comprehending large volumes of data, and to detect patterns, clusters and outliers that are not obvious using non-graphical forms of presentation. For this reason, data visualizations have an important role to play in a diverse range of applied problems, including data exploration and mining, information retrieval, and intelligence analysis. Unfortunately, while various different approaches are available for data visualization, there have been few rigorous evaluations of their effectiveness. This paper presents the results of three controlled experiments comparing the ability of four different visualization approaches to help people answer meaningful questions for binary data sets. Two of these visualizations, Chernoff faces and star glyphs, represent objects using simple icon-like displays. The other two visualizations use a spatial arrangement of the objects, based on a model of human mental representation, where more similar objects are placed nearer each other. One of these spatial displays uses a common features model of similarity, while the other uses a distinctive features model. The first experiment finds that both glyph visualizations lead to slow, inaccurate answers being given with low confidence, while the faster and more confident answers for spatial visualizations are only accurate when the common features similarity model is used. The second experiment, which considers only the spatial visualizations, supports this finding, with the common features approach again producing more accurate answers. The third experiment measures human performance using the raw data in tabular form, and so allows the usefulness of visualizations in facilitating human performance to be assessed. This experiment confirms that people are faster, more confident and more accurate when an appropriate visualization of the data is made available.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)569-602
Number of pages34
JournalInternational Journal of Human Computer Studies
Issue number5
Publication statusPublished or Issued - Nov 2003


  • Chernoff faces
  • Data visualization
  • Empirical evaluation
  • Glyphs
  • Multidimensional scaling

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Software
  • Human Factors and Ergonomics
  • Education
  • Engineering(all)
  • Human-Computer Interaction
  • Hardware and Architecture

Cite this