Participatory Data Physicalization: a new space to design informative experiences

A more aware society may give rise to a healthier society. The more people are informed, the higher are the chances to prevent cancer in its early stages, and therefore to survive.

matteo moretti
Oct 15, 2018 · 5 min read

“Between 30% and 50% of all cancer cases are preventable. Prevention offers the most cost-effective long-term strategy for the control of cancer” (World Health Organisation).

Currently, in Italy, the awareness about cancer diffusion and prevention is pretty low, despite many educational websites, printed and online campaigns. On an average level, cancer is still perceived as a fatal disease, and this affects the information process. Information avoidance is, indeed, a typical behavior, especially on cancer-related issues.

On the occasion of TedMed Milan 2017, at the Politecnico of Milan, Italy, we were asked by “”, a startup that operates on cancer-prevention awareness, to design an informative experience able to inform in new ways an audience on such a delicate topic. The main request was to raise awareness on cancer prevention best practices, avoiding the traditional top-down healthcare communication, and, possibly, to collect at the same time information about the participants’ knowledge. After several workshops and meetings, characterized by a co-design approach, we defined a participatory data physicalization, whose aim would be to go over the boundaries of normal data physicalization and turn it into a participatory experience.
What are we talking about? We refer to the newly emerging field of data visualization, the so-called physicalization, consisting of physical objects that represent data and then create information. Data becomes tangible, experienceable though shapes and materials, driving information through new (physical) paradigms. But what happens when data physicalization turns into a participatory experience, where people are actively contributing to the shared experience, with their actions? Dale’s cone of experience gives us a hint on what might happen.

The Dale’s cone of experience

According to this model, physical experiences are the most viable way to remember what we do: although we perceive Dale’s figures as a mere indication, we do believe that a physical approach helps people remembering better facts and figures.

When we turned physicalization into a shared experience, where visitors became participants: protagonists and recipients of the visualization. Passers-by were invited to answer simple questions, by tucking a wool wire into a series of rings: an easy gesture that doesn’t involve a big effort.

People participating into the visualization

The first group of questions was easy to answer: asking participants for their habits and routines, while the second group confronted people on their lack of knowledge. Indeed, we relied on a “You Draw It” approach, introduced some years ago by a team of designers and journalists at the New York Times. The act of guessing, in fact, helps the assimilation of content by arousing curiosity around the right answer, once participants receive new information.

Curiosity occurs when somebody realizes that they have a knowledge gap, that could be filled by information. For that reason, the experience required participants to guess on cancer-related data. Only a few of them knew the answer to the question “How many people are diagnosed with cancer every day in Italy?”, or “How many people successfully fought cancer last year?” This approach successfully aroused the curiosity of those ignoring the answers, engaging participants to look for the right answers, once the experience was completed. On top of the interactive experience, participants could access a booklet we designed, with all the right answers they were trying to guess, along with additional information.

Details of the booklet provided to the participants

Its visual language relied on a friendlier and more playful style, despite the seriousness of the topic. Yet, the underlying idea was to provide an experience as distant as possible from the traditional health care communication, made of cold charts and pictograms.

We also led a qualitative evaluation after the experience: participants were asked for feedback, in order to evaluate the effectiveness of the data physicalization project. 60% of participants declared not to know cancer-related figures, while 30% knew only some of them. Finally, participants were shocked they did not know at all the number of “daily cancer diagnosis” and the number of “people living in Italy with a diagnosed cancer”. This small assessment allowed us to evaluate that the project exposed participants to their lack of knowledge, providing them with the realization they were ignorant about the most important and fundamental data regarding the phenomenon being exposed to this method, pushing them to ask for more information at the end of it. What we observed is that each participant asked for the right answers and then read the booklet after the completion of the experience. Indeed, for 150 participants, 150 copies were given away.

The participative physicalization at the end of the day

We are really enthusiast of this project, that blends the boundaries between graphic, information, product, and exhibit design, mixing them with social sciences, too: we strongly believe in the future of interdisciplinary design ♥️.

We connect data, design, publishing and science to empower…

matteo moretti

Written by

Award-winning designer, co-founder of, I design immersive, interactive, participatory, informative experiences. Then I write & talk about them.

We connect data, design, publishing and science to empower your organisation’s strategy.

matteo moretti

Written by

Award-winning designer, co-founder of, I design immersive, interactive, participatory, informative experiences. Then I write & talk about them.

We connect data, design, publishing and science to empower your organisation’s strategy.

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