Living Liquid: Design and Evaluation of an Exploratory Visualization Tool for Museum Visitors

Joyce Ma, Isaac Liao, Kwan-Liu Ma, Jennifer Frazier
Interactive visualizations can allow science museum visitors to explore new worlds by seeing and interacting with scientific data. However, designing interactive visualizations for informal learning environments, such as museums, presents several challenges. First, visualizations must engage visitors on a personal level. Second, visitors often lack the background to interpret visualizations of scientific data. Third, visitors have very limited time at individual exhibits in museums. This paper examines these design considerations through the iterative development and evaluation of an interactive exhibit as a visualization tool that gives museumgoers access to scientific data generated and used by researchers. The exhibit prototype, Living Liquid, encourages visitors to ask and answer their own questions while exploring the time-varying global distribution of simulated marine microbes using a touchscreen interface. Iterative development proceeded through three rounds of formative evaluations using think-aloud protocols and interviews, each round informing a key visualization design decision: (1) what to visualize to initiate inquiry, (2) how to link data at the microscopic scale to global patterns, and (3) how to include additional data that allows visitors to pursue their own questions. Data from visitor evaluations suggests that, when designing visualizations for public audiences, one should (1) avoid distracting visitors from data that they should explore, (2) incorporate background information into the visualization, (3) favor understandability over scientific accuracy, and (4) layer data accessibility to structure inquiry. Lessons learned from this case study add to our growing understanding of how to use visualizations to actively engage learners with scientific data.