Scientists at Carnegie Mellon University developed a visualisation approach that allows people to explore complex data with their fingers.
Called Kinetica, this proof-of-concept system for tablets converts tabular data, such as Excel spreadsheets, so that data points appear as coloured spheres on the touch screen.
People can directly manipulate this data, using natural gestures to sort, filter, stack, flick and pull data points as needed to help them answer questions or explore hidden relationships.
"The interactions are intuitive, so people quickly figure out how to explore the data with minimal training," said Jeffrey Rzeszotarski, a PhD student in the Human-Computer Interaction Institute (HCII) who developed Kinetica with Aniket Kittur, assistant professor in the HCII.
"It's not enough to see single points — you want to understand the distribution of the data so you can balance price vs gas mileage vs horsepower vs head room," Kittur said. Kinetica solves this problem by taking advantage of the multi-touch capabilities of tablets.
Data points don't just pop into place after they have been manipulated with Kinetica, as they do in a traditional spreadsheet. Seeing where data points come from as they are sorted can give the user deeper insights into relationships, according to Kittur and Rzeszotarski.
For instance, when a user drags a virtual sieve across points to filter them, they can watch as the points are screened out. Outliers - data points that don't fit with most of the others - also can be readily identified.
In user studies, people using an Excel spreadsheet to analyse data typically made about the same number of observations within a 15-minute time span as did Kinetica users, Rzeszotarski noted.
But the Kinetica users had a better understanding across multiple dimensions of data.
For instance, Excel users analysing data on Titanic shipwreck passengers might extract facts such as the passengers' average age, while Kinetica users would note relationships, such as the association between age and survival.
Approaches such as Kinetica could expand the functionality of tablets, researchers said. Though Kinetica was developed initially for the iPad, the researchers are exploring versions adapted to other devices.
The study will be presented at the CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems in Toronto.