Explanatory drawings prioritize functional properties at the expense of visual fidelity


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What visualization strategies do people use to communicate abstract knowledge to others? We developed a drawing paradigm to elicit visual explanations about novel machines and obtained detailed annotations of the semantic information conveyed in each drawing. We found that these visual explanations contained: (1) greater emphasis on causally relevant parts of the machine, (2) less emphasis on structural features that were visually salient but causally irrelevant, and (3) more symbols, relative to baseline drawings intended only to communicate the machines’ appearance. However, this overall pattern of emphasis did not necessarily improve naive viewers’ ability to infer how to operate the machines, nor their ability to identify them, suggesting a potential mismatch between what people believe a visual explanation contains and what may be most useful. Taken together, our findings advance our understanding of how communicative goals constrain visual communication of abstract knowledge across behavioral contexts.
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