Word Clouds (Design methods #46)

Jun 28 2017

Word clouds are one of the most basic methods for visualising textual information. While sometimes overused, they provide a sometimes useful summary of the frequency of use of certain words or phrases within a piece of research, in answer to a question, or on a website (as in the example above taken from doctordisruption.com). Word clouds derive from tag clouds, and are easy to access online via Wordle and other free applications.

Word clouds most frequently show the most frequently used words or word pairs, providing a simple visual summary of often complex data, where size represents frequency and colour, font and other devices can be used to provide visual engagement. The summary helps form a general impression of information content, leading to further exploration of data sets. As in all research, word clouds should be supported with details of where the data came from, methods used to collect the data, a key to  colours, shapes, fonts, etc where they have specific meaning and full disclosure of any cleaning or scrubbing performed on the data before its visual presentation.

Although I am not a frequent user of word clouds, they can prove useful in highlighting clear differences in the language used across different people or in response to different questions or stimuli where those differences can be clearly characterised by the use of different language and different frequencies of use of certain words and phrases (and one that is more visual than standard statistical summaries).

They can also be used to highlight specific words to prompt discussion or highlighting key positives or negatives with any test item. Word clouds are a door into the complexity of language and its interpretation, but they are only a door and much more can and should be done to use language as a door to human thinking, requiring other analytic tools and more linguistically informed approaches such as discourse analysis.

REFERENCES

Universal Methods of Design by Martin & Hanington

Visual Thinking by Rudolf Arnheim

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