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Visual notations form an integral part of the language of software engineering (SE). Yet historically, SE researchers and notation designers have ignored or undervalued issues of visual representation. In evaluating and comparing notations, details of visual syntax are rarely discussed. In designing notations, the majority of effort is spent on semantics, with graphical conventions largely an afterthought. Typically, no design rationale, scientific or otherwise, is provided for visual representation choices. While SE has developed mature methods for evaluating and designing semantics, it lacks equivalent methods for visual syntax. This paper defines a set of principles for designing cognitively effective visual notations: ones that are optimized for human communication and problem solving. Together these form a design theory, called the Physics of Notations as it focuses on the physical (perceptual) properties of notations rather than their logical (semantic) properties. The principles were synthesized from theory and empirical evidence from a wide range of fields and rest on an explicit theory of how visual notations communicate. They can be used to evaluate, compare, and improve existing visual notations as well as to construct new ones. The paper identifies serious design flaws in some of the leading SE notations, together with practical suggestions for improving them. It also showcases some examples of visual notation design excellence from SE and other fields.
Date of Publication: Nov.-Dec. 2009