Martin Krzywinski, Inanc Birol, Steven Jones, Marco Marra
Presented at Biovis 2012 (Visweek 2012). Content is drawn from my book chapter Visualization Principles for Scientific Communication (Martin Krzywinski & Jonathan Corum) in the upcoming open access Cambridge Press book Visualizing biological data - a practical guide (Seán I. O'Donoghue, James B. Procter, Kate Patterson, eds.), a survey of best practices and unsolved problems in biological visualization. This book project was conceptualized and initiated at the Vizbi 2011 conference.
Create legible visualizations with a strong message. Make elements large enough to be resolved comfortably. Bin dense data to avoid sacrificing clarity.
Use exploratory tools (e.g. genome browsers) to discover patterns and validate hypotheses. Avoid using screenshots from these applications for communication – they are typically too complex and cluttered with navigational elements to be an effective static figure.
Our acuity is ~50 cycles/degree or about 1/200 (0.3 pt) at 10 inches. Ensure the reader can comfortably see detail by limiting resolution to no more than 50% of acuity. Where possible, elements that require visual separation should be at least 1 pt part.
Ensure data elements are at least 1 pt on a two-column Nature figure (6.22 in), 4 pixels on a 1920 horizontal resolution display, or 2 pixels on a typical LCD projector. These restrictions become challenges for large genomes.
Data on large genomes must be downsampled. Depict variation with min/max plots and consider hiding it when it is within noise levels. Help the reader notice significant outliers.
Map size of elements onto clearly legible symbols. Legibility and clarity are more important than precise positioning and sizing. Discretize sizes and positions to facilitate making meaningful comparisons.
A strong visual message has no uncertainty in its interpretation. Focus on a single theme by aggregating unnecessary detail.
Establishing context is helpful when emergent patterns in the data provide a useful perspective on the message. When data sets are large, it is difficult to maintain detail in the context layer because the density of points can visually overwhelm the area of interest. In this case, consider showing only the outliers in the data set.
The reader’s attention can be focused by increasing the salience of interesting patterns. Other complex data sets, such as networks, are shown more effectively when context is carefully edited or even removed.
Match the visual encoding to the hypothesis. Use encodings specific and sensitive to important patterns. Dense annotations should be independent of the core data in distinct visual layers.
Choose concise encodings over elaborate ones.
Accuracy and speed in detecting differences in visual forms depends on how information is presented. We judge relative lengths more accurately than areas, particularly when elements are aligned and adjacent. Our judgment of area is poor because we use length as a proxy, which causes us to systematically underestimate.
In addition to being transparent and predictable, visualizations must be robust with respect to the data. Changes in the data set should be reflected by proportionate changes in the visualization. Be wary of force-directed network layouts, which have low spatial autocorrelation. In general, these are neither sensitive nor specific to patterns of interest.
Well-designed figures illustrate complex concepts and patterns that may be difficult to express concisely in words. Figures that are clear, concise and attractive are effective – they form a strong connection with the reader and communicate with immediacy. These qualities can be achieved with methods of graphic design, which are based on theories of how we perceive, interpret and organize visual information.
The reader does not know what is important in a figure and will assume that any spatial or color variation is meaningful. The figure’s variation should come solely from data or act to organize information.
Including details not relevant to the core message of the figure can create confusion. Encapsulation should be done to the same level of detail and to the simplest visual form. Duplication in labels should be avoided.
When the data set embodies a natural hierarchy, use an encoding that emphasizes it clearly and memorably. The use hierarchy in layout (e.g. tabular form) and encoding can significantly improve a muddled figure.
Color is a useful encoding – the eye can distinguish about 450 levels of gray, 150 hues, and 10-60 levels of saturation, depending on the color – but our ability to perceive differences varies with context. Adjacent tones with different luminance values can interfere with discrimination, in interaction known as the luminance effect.
In an audience of 8 men and 8 women, chances are 50% that at least one has some degree of color blindness. Use a palette that is color-blind safe. In the palette below the 15 colors appear as 5-color tone progressions to those with color blindness. Additional encodings can be achieved with symbols or line thickness.
We look at what happens how uncertainty of two variables combines and how this impacts the increased uncertainty when two samples are compared and highlight the differences between the two-sample and paired t-tests.
When performing any statistical test, it's important to understand and satisfy its requirements. The t-test is very robust with respect to some of its assumptions, but not others. We explore which.
Krzywinski, M. & Altman, N. (2014) Points of Significance: Comparing Samples — Part I Nature Methods 11:215-216.
Krzywinski, M. & Altman, N. (2013) Points of Significance: Significance, P values and t-tests Nature Methods 10:1041-1042.
Beautiful Science explores how our understanding of ourselves and our planet has evolved alongside our ability to represent, graph and map the mass data of the time. The exhibit runs 20 February — 26 May 2014 and is free to the public. There is a good Nature blog writeup about it, a piece in The Guardian, and a great video that explains the the exhibit narrated by Johanna Kieniewicz, the curator.
I am privileged to contribute an information graphic to the exhibit in the Tree of Life section. The piece shows how sequence similarity varies across species as a function of evolutionary distance. The installation is a set of 6 30x30 cm backlit panels. They look terrific.
Quick, name three chart types. Line, bar and scatter come to mind. Perhaps you said pie too—tsk tsk. Nobody ever thinks of the box plot.
Box plots reveal details about data without overloading a figure with a full frequency distribution histogram. They're easy to compare and now easy to make with BoxPlotR (try it). In our fifth Points of Significance column, we take a break from the theory to explain this plot type and—I hope— convince you that they're worth thinking about.
The February issue of Nature Methods kicks the bar chart two more times: Dan Evanko's Kick the Bar Chart Habit editorial and a Points of View: Bar charts and box plots column by Mark Streit and Nils Gehlenborg.
Krzywinski, M. & Altman, N. (2014) Points of Significance: Visualizing samples with box plots Nature Methods 11:119-120.
For specialists, visualizations should expose detail to allow for exploration and inspiration. For enthusiasts, they should provide context, integrate facts and inform. For the layperson, they should capture the essence of the topic, narrate a story and deligt.
Wired's Brandon Keim wrote up a short article about me and some of my work—Circle of Life: The Beautiful New Way to Visualize Biological Data.
Experimental designs that lack power cannot reliably detect real effects. Power of statistical tests is largely unappreciated and many underpowered studies continue to be published.
This month, Naomi and I explain what power is, how it relates to Type I and Type II errors and sample size. By understanding the relationship between these quantities you can design a study that has both low false positive rate and high power.
Krzywinski, M. & Altman, N. (2013) Points of Significance: Power and Sample Size Nature Methods 10:1139-1140.