Measuring and improving the readability of network visualizations

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Network data structures have been used extensively for modeling entities and their ties across such diverse disciplines as Computer Science, Sociology, Bioinformatics, Urban Planning, and Archeology. Analyzing networks involves understanding the complex relationships between entities as well as any attributes, statistics, or groupings associated with them. The widely used node-link visualization excels at showing the topology, attributes, and groupings simultaneously. However, many existing node-link visualizations are difficult to extract meaning from because of (1) the inherent complexity of the relationships, (2) the number of items designers try to render in limited screen space, and (3) for every network there are many potential unintelligible or even misleading visualizations. Automated layout algorithms have helped, but frequently generate ineffective visualizations even when used by expert analysts. Past work, including my own described herein, have shown there can be vast improvements in network visualizations, but no one can yet produce readable and meaningful visualizations for all networks.

Since there is no single way to visualize all networks effectively, in this dissertation I investigate three complimentary strategies. First, I introduce a technique called motif simplification that leverages the repeating patterns or motifs in a network to reduce visual complexity. I replace common, high-payoff motifs with easily understandable glyphs that require less screen space, can reveal otherwise hidden relationships, and improve user performance on many network analysis tasks. Next, I present new Group-in-a-Box layouts that subdivide large, dense networks using attribute- or topology-based groupings. These layouts take group membership into account to more clearly show the ties within groups as well as the aggregate relationships between groups. Finally, I develop a set of readability metrics to measure visualization effectiveness and localize areas needing improvement. I detail optimization recommendations for specific user tasks, in addition to leveraging the readability metrics in a user-assisted layout optimization technique.

This dissertation contributes an understanding of why some node-link visualizations are difficult to read, what measures of readability could help guide designers and users, and several promising strategies for improving readability which demonstrate that progress is possible. This work also opens several avenues of research, both technical and in user education.