Ever had to look at a data visualization while you were in a lousy mood? Chances are you were more likely to make an error in visual judgment than if you had been feeling more cheerful. New research suggests that putting users in an emotionally positive mindset improves their accuracy in interpreting data visualizations. So even if your company publishes only the occasional graph, provoking a positive emotional response in the audience might just help you get your data across more accurately. Moreover, as research in this area grows more nuanced, companies producing visual analytic tools and products may be able to enhance their effectiveness by designing with emotion in mind.
It's already broadly accepted that emotion (or affect as it's called in psychology) can influence different cognitive processes like attention, memory, creativity, and problem solving. As design-thinking legend Don Norman writes in his book Emotional Design, "When you are in a state of negative affect, feeling anxious or endangered, neurotransmitters focus the brain processing," allowing for concentration on details. "Positive affect arouses curiosity, engages creativity, and makes the brain into an effective learning organism," allowing for a less-focused and broader view of the situation.
Recently published research from Ph.D. student Lane Harrison and collaborators extends this understanding of affect and brain processing to the realm of data visualization. Their results experimentally show that people who were positively primed — put in a good mood by reading a lighthearted news article — made less visual judgment errors across a range of different charts than people who were negatively primed. Moreover they found that it was the positive priming that was decreasing error rather than the negative priming increasing it.
What does this mean for companies designing data visualization tools and environments? If visual judgment and analytic accuracy is of the utmost importance, like in finance, intelligence, or health-care, you might think about how to integrate positive priming into the user's experience. The broader idea is something that scholars Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, in their book Nudge, call "libertarian paternalism" — biasing experiences to correct for cognitive deficiencies in human reasoning.
So, if users are less error prone when they're happy, why not design that emotional response into their tools and environments?
If only it were that easy. The news articles used as the affective primes in Harrison's study only nudged the mood of 30% of participants. It's also unclear how long an affective prime really lasts, how "durable" it can be. In the study, the subjects looked at the visualization right after reading the positive or negative story, but in a real use-context people are exposed to all kinds of different things that might confound an attempt to bias their mood: nutty co-workers, startling news events, soothing music, frenetic social media, or dreamy personal ruminations, all of which can be hard to control.
Manipulating emotions may come with its own set of slippery slopes and gotchas too. Another study from 2011 used images of things like smiling babies and rollicking puppies to induce positive affect in a creativity task. But imagine a somber data visualization about a patient's health vitals surrounded by such an artificial attempt to manipulate the user into a positive, more accurate mood. The tension between the desired affect and the inherent tone of the content could be problematic or even backfire entirely.
Less intrusive ways to put users in a positive frame of mind include making the interface more aesthetically pleasing or changing the lighting or color in the user's environment. Environmental conditions that Don Norman cites as engendering a positive affect include sweet smells, soothing sounds, harmonious music, symmetry, and smooth objects. Such environmental changes might stand in less direct conflict with underlying content than an interface that is actively trying to manipulate mood.
It should be clear that there are challenges here: When, how, and how much might you want to provoke emotion? And should you design it into the tool, or into the environment? These questions will get sorted out as the research in this area improves, but what we do know is that whether the end-users of your company's data visualizations are customers, the public, or a group of internal analysts, it might just be worthwhile to keep those users in a cheerful mood.