There is something about the science of data visualization that absolutely captures our imagination. In fact, we used the science of sight and the power of human pattern recognition to create VisualCue in the first place. We saw that there was  problem with spreadsheets and the standard graphs and charts that were used to visualize them- they weren’t very memorable or easy to understand.

So we used icons and colors to present that same information in a different way. After the very first VisualCue experiments in 2007 we discovered a very interesting side effect of our presentation layer: people remembered the data more easily after having seen it in VisualCue.

This week we stumbled across a research paper written last year that finally sheds some light on why.

It’s All in the Picture

The research was led by Zoya Bylinskii and her team and was built off of research that we, and pretty much everybody else in the world of data visualization, has read before- specifically the work of Bainbridge, Borkin and Isola on image memorability.

Specifically, Bylinskii was doing further research into the findings by these previous scientists by asking a somewhat sticky question- is image memorability really intrinsic to the image, or are there more contextual factors involved (such as who is doing the looking)? After a series of computational models and other tests Bylinskii was ready to present her findings- “memorability scores are highly consistent across participants, which suggests there is a component of image memory intrinsic to the images themselves.”

Frankly, this is great news for VisualCue. Our entire platform is built upon the premise that our presentation layer empowers anyone, regardless of training, with the ability to look at our visualizations and instantly spot ways they can improve whichever people, processes or assets need their attention.


If Bylinskii discovered that image memorability was more extrinsic to the images, i.e. it was up to the person doing the seeing, then we would have had to entirely rethink what VisualCue is and does.

However, Bylinskii reported that “we have shown that this consistency holds at the within-category level, for a total of 21 different indoor and outdoor scene categories. Additionally, high consistency exists across experiments, with varying contexts, experimental set-ups, and participant populations.”

In other words- pictures really are more memorable, no matter who is looking at them.

Familiarity and Utility

But there is something else Bylinskii discovered that is of particular use to the VisualCrew- the concept of how familiarity and utility affects memorability. She writs that “familiarity, which involves multiple repetitions of an item [and] is an important factor in natural environments… Utility would correspond to how important a given item is to the observer… For instance, faces have high utility , and images with faces have been found to be more memorable.”

Just take a look at any VisualCue Mosaic and you will see that there is lots of familiarity- the same icons are represented over and over again. Each Tile, though possessing many different colors than it’s neighbors and perhaps having one or two different cues, looks basically the same. Up until now we just knew, instinctually, that repeating the same icons over and over again in each Tile with slight variation made the patterns easier to spot, now we know why. According to the principle of familiarity repeating these recognizable icons actually makes the visualizations more memorable.

Tiles also possess the quality of utility. Each icon represents a report, metric or key performance indicator that is important to your business. While each Tile can contain over a dozen key performance indicators designing those Tiles and choosing those key performance indicators is very important- only the useful information is included.

We love reading research on visualization precisely because it gives us insight into why VisualCue is the way it is. Not only does our use of icons make us more memorable but even the way we use them and the specific reports we choose to include in our Tiles makes them more memorable.

Until next time,

The VisualCrew