Many of the pressing questions in information visualization deal with how exactly a user reads a collection of visual marks as information about relationships between entities. Previous research has suggested that people see parts of a visualization as objects, and may metaphorically interpret apparent physical relationships between these objects as suggestive of data relationships. We explored this hypothesis in detail in a series of user experiments. Inspired by the concept of implied dynamics in psychology, we first studied whether perceived gravity acting on a mark in a scatterplot can lead to errors in a participant’s recall of the mark’s position. The results of this study suggested that such position errors exist, but may be more strongly influenced by attraction between marks. We hypothesized that such apparent attraction may be influenced by elements used to suggest relationship between objects, such as connecting lines, grouping elements, and visual similarity. We further studied what visual elements are most likely to cause this attraction effect, and whether the elements that best predicted attraction errors were also those which suggested conceptual relationships most strongly. Our findings show a correlation between attraction errors and intuitions about relatedness, pointing towards a possible mechanism by which the perception of visual marks becomes an interpretation of data relationships.
Laws of Attraction: From Perceived Forces to Conceptual Similarity. Transactions on Visualization and Computer Graphics (Proceedings InfoVis), vol. 16, no. 6, pp. 1009–1016, 2010