Participatory Visualization with Wordle
Fernanda B. Viegas, Martin Wattenberg, and Jonathan Feinberg
IEEE Transactions on Visualization and Computer Graphics
Vol.15. No.6. (November 2009). Pages 1137-1144.

The authors of this great Wordle study discuss the design and use of Wordles. Their study encompasses spontaneous observed behaviors as well as the results of a survey.

Wordle is not alone in the tag cloud generator field. Somewhat similar tag cloud generators include TagCrowd, The Tag Cloud Generator, Many Eyes, and Tree Cloud.

The authors cite Wordle’s ability to convey social information in a non-scientific form, ease of use by non-expert users, user creativity, and a participatory culture as among the reasons for its success against other formats.

One of Wordle’s unique traits is its ability to pack words very tightly by putting some short words inside of others (like the word “felt” is inside the letter “C” of Church in our current header image).

Yet one more uniqueness is the direct linearity of font size with word frequency. Other infovis (information visual) tools typically base the relationship on the square root of word frequency.

The process to generate Wordles is very straight forward, yet the randomness and options allow tremendous customization of images. The authors also recognize the ability to take Wordles beyond the web by imprinting them on t-shirts, cards, and other phsyical objects (as we have done).

Their survey resulted in two primary findings.

The importance of design and how Wordle.net functions like a creation tool.
A significant portion of participants in the study did NOT understand what font size meant in Wordle (font size is directly proportional to word use frequency).

Design and visual appeal were found to be the dominant reasons for users being drawn to Wordle. The authors found those who prefer Wordles over Tag Clouds could be grouped into three categories.

Emotional Impact
Attention Keeping Visuals
Non-Linearity

Emotional Impact – Wordles are more interesting and elicit more of an emotional response than Tag Clouds. The colors encourage your eyes to move around and take in more words.

Attention Keeping Visuals – users often examine Wordles longer than Tag Clouds. “They look like art and make you look twice, then all of a sudden your are reading, thinking, feeling good, learning.”

Organic/Non-Linearity – more connections are formed by words that would of otherwise been some distance from one another. “They feel organic, the way real speech feels.”

For some users, Wordles not the beginning or they end. Wordling is but a step in a chain of events that may include different media. For example, one lady wrote a love letter to her husband, Wordled it, printed it on card stock as a Valentine, then wrote the actual note behind the Wordle, and gave it to him.

The authors discuss the “casual infovis” use of Wordle and the misinterpretation of output (users not understanding relative font size is proportional to word usage frequency). They note many people Wordle text they are intimately familiar with (such as wedding vows) to create momentos and find Wordles jog their memory. Typically, visualization of finding out something you already know is worthless, but in this setting it helps people remember key events in their lives. (Just like many of us are familiar with popular LDS and Mormon texts, viewing wordles of them may help us remember them.)

The strong emotional component many feel with momento Wordles suggest an analogy between Wordles and photography. Others relate momento Wordles to scrapbooking.

Another feature allowing users to share Wordles is the legal framework of the Creative Commons License. It allows users to legally capture their own wordles and reasonably use them as they see fit. The Creative Commons License allows users to think of their Wordles as their property “inspiring further experimentation and creativity.”

One point frequently made by the authors we have not yet mentioned is the use of Wordles by educators at all levels. They find Wordles engage students, even those previously less motivated.

If you have any interest in the science of Wordles we strongly encourage you to read this study. It was previously published on an IBM research server, but is unavailable at this writing.
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This post was originally on our Mormon Wordles dot Com site, it was moved here in early 2017.