National Highway Safety Comparison 2011

The most recent project in my data visualization class had students designing small multiple visualizations. According to Edward Tufte, in his book The Visual Display of Quantitative Information:

Well-designed small multiples are

  • inevitably comparative
  • deftly multivariate
  • shrunken, high-density graphics
  • usually based on a large data matrix
  • drawn almost entirely with data-ink
  • efficient in interpretation
  • often narrative in content, showing shifts in the relationship between variables as the index variable changes (thereby revealing interaction or multiplicative effects).

Tatsu Johnson successfully met these criteria in his chart visualizing highway safety.

Obviously, you can’t make much out of that. First I’ll give you his description at the top of the chart. Then I’ll show you a few details.

This chart compares the highway safety of all 50 states in the US. Fatalities, drivers and population, as well as the ratio between fatalities/population, are represented as a percentage of the most dangerous states. The lower the percentage of the fatalities/drivers and fatalities/population ratio, the safer the states are in comparison to other states. The ones with the higher percentages are the most dangerous to drive in. SOURCE: Google public data, U.S. Highway Statistics.

Tatsu has employed star charts to represent each state. Every spoke represents one of the variables.

Looking at California, you can see that there are a high number of fatalities, but this is to be expected, given that the state has a large population and a lot of drivers. The most important values in understanding safety, as Tatsu explained, are the two ratios, which are average.

Other points of interest he points out are highlighted in red and green.

Connecticut and Massachusetts rank among the most dangerous states in the US with the highest percentage of fatalities per driver/population.

Mississippi, North Dakota and Wyoming are the safest states, with the best fatality per driver/population ratio.

I guess Tatsu felt that including the star template behind each state provided a better measure. I would argue that they are unnecessary, and in fact, make it more difficult to see the data shapes. The borders are also unnecessary, but were a convenient way to bring attention to states of particular note. These are minor issues in an otherwise beautifully executed visualization.


One of the benefits of writing DesignAday is that I’ve had the opportunity to meet some of you. I spent a pleasant evening Friday night with Rohan Singh, a bright MHCI graduate student at CMU. He has been following the blog for a few years, but hadn’t realized until very recently that I lived in the Pittsburgh area. He asked if I’d be willing to meet him for coffee and let him pick my brain. I was more than happy to do so.

We talked about my job and the kind of work I do. We talked quite a bit about the value of visual design skills and how to improve them. We talked about what agencies are looking for in new hires, the importance of good writing skills, and the need for soft skills. We discussed data visualization, the genius designer mentality of traditional graphic design, and the need for critique when teaching yourself a new design skill. We touched on books about typography, Nathan Yau’s blog, Flowing Data, and the courses I’ve taught at WVU. We even discovered that we have both done work for Eaton. I thoroughly enjoyed the conversation, and Rohan was most appreciative.

I guess there are two points I want to make that were inspired by the meet up:

  1. If you have questions about design, don’t be afraid to ask someone that you respect. There are a lot of us that are willing, even eager, to impart our knowledge and experience on those new to the field.
  2. There is a huge value in, and great need for, professional designers sharing their expertise with students. If you are a faculty member, take advantage of those of us that are willing to share. If you are a professional who has the opportunity to share, please be generous with your time.

Three Things You Should Know This Week

  1. Midwest UX published their call for speaker proposals on April 1st—no foolin’! The conference will be held in Indianapolis, October 23-25. They’re looking for 30 and 45 minute talks, as well as full and half-day workshops. The submission deadline is June 1st. Get on it.
  2. Macaw, a new web design tool that works like a graphics program but writes semantic HTML and clean CSS, went on sale Monday. You can try it for free.
  3. Unicorn Institute announced today that they are accepting applications for full-time UX educators (aka Unicorn Wranglers). I’d apply myself if it weren’t for the fact that I would have to move to Tennessee. Nothing against the state, mind you—I’m just very happy where I’m living now.

It’s really difficult to get my students to think differently about the data they are trying to visualize. To take data that is displayed as a bar chart and imagine it in some completely different format is a real stretch for most of them. I was really impressed with Tatsu’s idea for his visualization comparing the average fuel efficiency of the different car manufacturers from 1985 to 2009. Rather than simply graphing the straight averages, he took the overall average, normalized it, and then showed how far over or under the average each manufacturer was.

I realize it’s too small for you to make out the details. A couple particular points of interest are Suzuki’s strong showing in the first half of the graph and Toyota’s noticeable uptick at the very end. The former may be due to their inclusion of motorcycles in their reported averages. Tatsu was not able to confirm or debunk that theory. That latter corresponds to the introduction of the Prius.

Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum

For her time-based visualization, Lauren chose to research the history of the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum. She plotted the population of the hospital against the population of the county in which it stands. Then she added short descriptions of events that happened during the time that the building was in use.

All information about the hospital is in red, while information about the county is in blue. She pointed out a couple of key points on the graphs.

The background colors indicate a point where the scale was split. She used a banner below the graph to show the name changes that took place during the life of the facility. She also traced a line to indicate the number of patients the facility was intended to house—a gross underestimate of its peak usage.

It’s a fine piece of work that demonstrates Lauren’s understanding of Tufte’s principles for data visualizations.

Design Ignites Change

Design Ignites Change hosts the annual Student Innovation Awards, and my students have four projects entered.

Design Ignites Change supports creative professionals, as well as high school and college students, who use design thinking – the combination of unleashed creativity and executable actions – to improve the lives of individuals and communities.

They will be granting two awards of $1,000 and four awards of $500 for projects with the potential to ignite positive social change. The deadline was February 28th, and the winners will be announced later this month.

Your Place, Your Space: Know Your Rights is a concept for a web service that will help students find quality off-campus housing. My students identified several issues with the current housing situation. Many landlords take advantage of the fact that a lot of students don’t know the West Virginia Landlord Code. They envisioned a website that would not only serve as an educational resource, but would provide tools for ranking landlords. Not just for students, landlords who follow the code would benefit from good ratings and publicity on the site.

WVU recently implemented a tobacco-free campus policy. Unfortunately, the rules are vague and poorly communicated. To make matters worse, the university campus is integrated with the city in such a way as to make it difficult to tell what is or isn’t considered to be campus property. My students designed iSmoke, a straightforward mobile app that immediately indicates whether or not the user is within campus bounds. It also provides shaded maps of the campus, information about the policy, and resources for people who want to quit smoking.

Parking Pal addresses a third issue facing WVU students. Parking around campus is scarce, and towing companies aggressively go after illegally parked vehicles. Students don’t understand laws, so towers take advantage of them. The iPhone app communicates with a GPS device placed in the car and alerts the owner if the car starts moving while they aren’t in it. The app also provides maps to assist in finding parking and information on towing laws.

All three of these projects were the result of the class I taught last semester. We did a unit on social change towards the end of the semester. The fourth project, College Compare Fair, is from the thesis work of one of my graduate students who is trying to combat poverty in the state.

Are You In?

Something strange and wonderful happened today. Jared Spool and Leslie Jensen-Inman launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund… wait for it… a curriculum! For a new UX school! That’s crazy. This isn’t something that the backers will be able to play, watch, or listen to when all is said and done. This is going to be a two-year program. The backer rewards are just notebooks and t-shirts. Crazy.

And yet, they reached their goal of $21,700 in a matter of hours. With 29 days to go, they are already at $37,132 from 318 backers. There is nothing  on the page about stretch goals. There are just a lot of UX professionals chucking money at this thing because we strongly believe it is necessary, and we respect the people that are trying to make it a reality.

Oh, I’m in. I am in.

Design for Doha

I’ve met a lot of fascinating people at the Interaction conferences, the next of which is coming up the first week of February. Alex Cheek is one of those people, whom I admire as a teacher, intellectual wit, and a guy with real chutzpah.

They told me at my last graduation that design had changed their worldviews. What I didn’t say back was that they changed me. I never would have guessed it when I first landed on Mars. I never expected to become so captivated by Middle East and South Asian cultures in ways beyond just karak and shisha addiction. I never expected such a positive embrace from technology and business students. I never expected that desert to be such a stimulating place.

He has a story to tell, so instead of writing my own post today, I’d like to forward you along to an article on the CMU School of Design’s website: Reflections on Doha: Four Years of Design at CMU Qatar.

The Right Skills

The Digital Life is a great podcast created by Jon Follett and Erik Dahl. I dare say it is one of the best podcasts currently being produced about Interaction Design and User Experience. If you haven’t listened to it, I highly recommend giving it a try, and the latest episode, number 56, is an excellent one to taste test. Titled “Design Education and Building Teams with the Right Skills”, it deals with topics near and dear to my own design practice, teaching, and general mindset. Here’s their episode summary:

User experience is an amalgam of information architecture, visual design, interaction design, user research, prototyping, coding, and a host of other skill sets. Combine this complexity with the rapid rate of change in technology and techniques, and it’s no wonder that there’s a gap between the skills required by the industry of UX designers and those taught by design programs in colleges and universities. In this episode of The Digital Life, we discuss the state of design education and how to build teams with the right skills to ship digital products with Jared Spool, Founding Principal of User Interface Engineering.

The program begins with an insightful overview of the current situation from Dirk Knemeyer. It’s a very relevant, historic perspective. The interview with Jared Spool about his new Unicorn Institute is fantastic. As usual, Jared has the research to back up the approach he and Leslie Jenson Inman are taking, and he paints a picture of design education serving the needs of the companies that will be hiring the graduates. Check it out.

Unicorn Quest - Part 4

In my last post, I began analyzing Dave Malouf’s article, Thoughts on code, programming, design, production, development, technology and Oh! Design. I started to write the post that would have followed on Thursday, but I had to prepare a haunted house to open Friday night and just couldn’t finish it.

Continuing where I left off, Dave Malouf gives us a dose of reality.

So for all intents and purposes, the point is just plain moot. Because as Jr. and Mid-level designers become Sr. and director level designers, their tech chops will just be assumed as they move up the ladder. Our whole frame of reference will be completely changed (is changing) in the next 3-5 years.

Dave thinks all junior to mid-level designers need to at least learn how to prototype using HTML, CSS, JavaScript, and jQuery. He claims it’s “an economic reality of employability.” He may be right. That’s not to say that a designer who can’t won’t be able to find a job, but they’ll have a lot more opportunities available if they can. The real problem here is that design schools are already stretched thin trying to cover everything students need to make it.

But what of more experienced designers? Are we grandfathered in? Do we get a free ride, delegating the implementation to the junior staff? Even Dave admits he lost out on positions because he couldn’t code at an appropriate level. I have always been one to teach myself new software and new technologies when I needed them to accomplish something. I taught myself to edit video in Premiere, create 3-D animations in Infini-D, and create interactive multimedia in Director in the course of a year while I was a senior in college. I experimented with numerous software packages for animation and web design in grad school. I had less opportunity to do this after becoming employed, but I’ve kept my HTML and CSS skills up-to-date and taught myself enough jQuery to use it on a project. I’m confident enough in my prototyping and implementation skills that I’m not concerned about a hotshot designer fresh out of school beating me out of a position.

Dave believes that designers must sacrifice depth in UX practice to add breadth in visual design and coding. If you’ve been following along, you already know that this is one point on which Dave and I don’t see eye-to-eye. As I’ve mentioned before, UX practitioners should develop some amount of depth in their specialty before putting the crossbar on their T, but a career is a long time. I’m not going to claim I know everything there is to know about Interaction Design, but I certainly know enough to branch out into some other areas.

That covers what Dave sees as the problems. Tomorrow, I’ll take a look at the good side.