Date of Award

Fall 2009

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy in Information Systems - (Ph.D.)


Information Systems

First Advisor

David Mendonca

Second Advisor

Starr Roxanne Hiltz

Third Advisor

Vincent Oria

Fourth Advisor

George Robert Widmeyer

Fifth Advisor

Lyn Bartram


Node-link diagrams are used represent systems having different elements and relationships among the elements. Representing the systems using visualizations like node-link diagrams provides cognitive aid to individuals in understanding the system and effectively managing these systems. Using appropriate visual tools aids in task completion by reducing the cognitive load of individuals in understanding the problems and solving them. However, the visualizations that are currently developed lack any cognitive processing based evaluation. Most of the evaluations (if any) are based on the result of tasks performed using these visualizations. Therefore, the evaluations do not provide any perspective from the point of the cognitive processing required in working with the visualization.

This research focuses on understanding the effect of different visualization types and complexities on problem understanding and performance using a visual problem solving task. Two informationally equivalent but visually different visualizations - geon diagrams based on structural object perception theory and UML diagrams based on object modeling - are investigated to understand the cognitive processes that underlie reasoning with different types of visualizations. Specifically, the two visualizations are used to represent interdependent critical infrastructures. Participants are asked to solve a problem using the different visualizations. The effectiveness of the task completion is measured in terms of the time taken to complete the task and the accuracy of the result of the task. The differences in the cognitive processing while using the different visualizations are measured in terms of the search path and the search-steps of the individual.

The results from this research underscore the difference in the effectiveness of the different diagrams in solving the same problem. The time taken to complete the task is significantly lower in geon diagrams. The error rate is also significantly lower when using geon diagrams. The search path for UML diagrams is more node-dominant but for geon diagrams is a distribution of nodes, links and components (combinations of nodes and links). Evaluation dominates the search-steps in geon diagrams whereas locating steps dominate UML diagrams. The results also show that the differences in search path and search steps for different visualizations increase when the complexity of the diagrams increase.

This study helps to establish the importance of cognitive level understanding of the use of diagrammatic representation of information for visual problem solving. The results also highlight that measures of effectiveness of any visualization should include measuring the cognitive process of individuals while they are doing the visual task apart from the measures of time and accuracy of the result of a visual task.