Psychology & Data Viz

Melanie Herrmann

Melanie Herrmann

I’m a psychologist, environmentalist, and human-computer interaction researcher, currently employed at Cambridge University, funded by Innovate UK, working in collaboration with data design company Vizzuality.

I apply cognitive science to evaluate and improve environmental data viz. The aim of my work is to support engineers, data scientists, designers, and programmers in creating more impactful tools and applications with a lasting benefit to society and the environment.

I obtained my PhD from University College London’s Interaction Centre (UCLIC), in collaboration with one of the UK’s big six energy providers. In my PhD research, I investigated how to best visualise home energy data to householders. The UK (and many other countries worldwide) are rolling out smart meters and in-home displays to customers. Their benefits on energy savings have been limited so far. I found that eco-feedback is often too data-driven, and not user-centric. For example, energy data is time series data, therefore we depict power over time in line graphs. But this is not in line with social practice theory. Householders use energy to wash laundry, cook dinner, or make a cup of tea.

Most importantly, we need to show them how much energy they consumer per practice (and not necessarily how total consumption varies over time). In my current post-doc work, I review and evaluate environmental data viz tools, i.e. websites that show data on deforestation, global fishing activity, palm oil trade, etc.

Such websites are an intriguing challenge, because their complexity and interactivity transcends the established principles of visualization theory. I look at research questions such as: What is the best way to visualize geographical change over time? Do usability, complexity, or colourfulness impact the users’ emotional reaction and their decision making? Can great visualizations change behaviour?

I draw from cognitive psychology and apply concepts such as visual stress and visual clutter in images to assess how user-friendly those websites are. Going ahead, I will conduct think-out-loud interviews, eye-tracking experiments and large scale online surveys. My goal is to support Vizzuality’s efforts to visualize data to drive positive change in the world!


Psychologist, Environmentalist, Human-Computer Interaction Researcher. PhD in Sustainable HCI from University College London’s Interaction Centre (UCLIC). Psychology post-doc researcher at Cambridge University, UK. Working with data design company Vizzuality, a company trusted by the world’s most important organisations to create unique tools and applications with a lasting benefit to society and the environment.