Do 2D and 3D visualisations in a 3D virtual environment enhance understanding and decision-making? Evidence from preparers and users of sustainability information
This study investigates the potential utility of new data visualisation technologies in a social and environmental accounting context. The study utilises a leading game engine (Unreal Engine 4) to explore whether preparers and users of sustainability reports believe that 2D and 3D sustainability information visualisations presented in a 3D virtual environment enhance understanding and decision-making. The study also explores how game engine technology can be optimised for future sustainability reporting initiatives.
Data visualisation has been widely shown to improve decision-making, but prior research in financial accounting and social and environmental accounting has predominately focused on data visualisation as a tool for impression management. Moreover, although 3D visualisations have been found to be helpful in multiple fields, they have received little attention in an accounting context. The present study is informed by visual perception theory, which draws on cognitive science to explain the effectiveness of data visualisations, though there is still theoretical uncertainty as to the likely utility of 3D data visualisations. This study uses an extension of the photo-elicitation method, an innovation on prior studies as these have typically used an experimental research design. Photo-elicitation traditionally involves presenting photographs to elicit responses from interview participants and was extended in the present study by exposing participants to three data visualisation stimuli (numerical sustainability data and 2D charts, 2D charts in a 3D environment and 3D charts in a 3D environment) and eliciting responses to each stimulus. Twelve interviews were conducted with social and environmental accounting report researchers, preparers and users.
A key finding is that although participants reported some advantages of translating 2D charts and graphs into 3D visualisations—primarily in relation to the potential to show greater contextual information and move around the visualisations—these were generally outweighed by the disadvantages of viewing distortion and a slower interface, especially for expert users of information. Participants believed that the optimal use of current 3D visualisation technology would not be an alternative to traditional sustainability reporting but could be a powerful tool for educating novice users, particularly if it was interactive and facilitated community experiences.