Cognitive Processes and Traits Related to Graphic Comprehension

Cognitive Processes and Traits Related to Graphic Comprehension

Angela M. Zoss (Duke University, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-1837-2.ch073
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Abstract

The subject of how visualizations and graphics in general can be understood by their viewers draws on theories from many fields of research. Such theories might address the formal structure of the visualization, the style and graphic design skills of the creator, the task driving the viewer's interaction with the visualization, the type of data being represented, or the skills and experiences of viewer. This chapter focuses on this last question and presents a set of interrelated constructs and viewer traits that contribute to (or interfere with) a viewer's ability to analyze a particular data visualization. The review covers spatial thinking skills, cognitive styles, mental models, and cognitive load in its discussion of theoretical constructs related to graphic comprehension. The review also addresses how these cognitive processes vary by age, sex, and disciplinary background–the most common demographic characteristics studied in relation to graphic comprehension. Together, the constructs and traits contribute to a diverse and nuanced understanding of the viewers of data visualizations.
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Graphic comprehension is at its heart a process of sense making. Low-level perceptual processes interact with higher-level attentional, associative, and interpretational processes to influence what people see and understand. The following section omits the cognitive processes with broader applicability and focuses instead on a series of specific constructs developed and tested to explain some component of graphic comprehension. Research on spatial thinking skills helps to categorize independent sets of skills necessary for different types of graphic comprehension tasks, from mental rotation of objects to maintaining vivid imagery. Mental models research applies across those spatial skills to describe how individuals interacting with an expectable external system gain experience and expertise, which they use to guide future interactions. Finally, cognitive load theory addresses the context surrounding the visualization system, building of the individual’s experiences to predict what sorts of modes of communication are likely to be helpful or confusing.

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