Human-Computer Interaction Institute
School of Computer Science, Carnegie Mellon University


Uncovering Nuances in Complex Data
through Focus and Context Visualizations

Jeffrey M. Rzeszotarski

May 2016

Ph.D. Thesis


Keywords: NA

Across a wide variety of digital devices, users create, consume, and disseminate large quantities of information. While data sometimes look like a spreadsheet or network diagram, more often for everyday users their data look more like an Amazon search page, the line-up for a fantasy football team, or a set of Yelp reviews. However, interpreting these kinds of data remains a difficult task even for experts since they often feature soft or unknown constraints (e.g. "I want some Thai food, but I also want a good bargain") across highly multidimensional data (i.e. rating, reviews, popularity, proximity). Existing technology is largely optimized for users with hard criteria and satisfiable constraints, and consumer systems often use representations better suited for browsing than sensemaking.

In this thesis I explore ways to support soft constraint decision-making and exploratory data analysis by giving users tools that show fine-grained features of the data while at the same time displaying useful contextual information. I describe approaches for representing collaborative content history and working behavior that reveal both individual and group/dataset level features. Using these approaches, I investigate general visualizations that utilize physics to help even inexperienced users find small and large trends in multivariate data. I describe the transition of physics-based visualization from the research space into the commercial space through a startup company, and the insights that emerged both from interviews with experts in a wide variety of industries during commercialization and from a comparative lab study. Taking one core use case from commercialization, consumer search, I develop a prototype, Fractal, which helps users explore and apply constraints to Yelp data at a variety of scales by curating and representing individual-, group-, and dataset-level features. Through a user study and theoretical model I consider how the prototype can best aide users throughout the sensemaking process.

My dissertation further investigates physics-based approaches for represent multivariate data, and explores how the user's exploration process itself can help dynamically to refine the search process and visual representation. I demonstrate that selectively representing points using clusters can extend physics-based visualizations across a variety of data scales, and help users make sense of data at scales that might otherwise overload them. My model provides a framework for stitching together a model of user interest and data features, unsupervised clustering, and visual representations for exploratory data visualization. The implications from commercialization are more broad, giving insight into why research in the visualization space is/isn't adopted by industry, a variety of real-world use cases for multivariate exploratory data analysis, and an index of common data visualization needs in industry.

200 pages

Thesis Committee:
Ankit Kittur (Chair)
Jodi Forlizzi
Jason Hong
John Stasko (Georgia Institute of Technology)

Anind K. Dey, Head, Human-Computer Interaction Institute
Andrew W. Moore, Dean, School of Computer Science

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