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December 19, 2019
Information Insight

No Such Thing as Information Overload

Ever experienced the feeling where you look at an infographic and you simply cannot take your eyes off it?

For every additional second you spend looking at it, you’re rewarded with a hefty load of information. And with every hefty load of information, your brain churns a set of questions which are then answered by consequent visuals. It’s a sign that your BI developer/ PowerPoint creator/ information design professional (or whoever it is that created it) seems to have a firm grip on Edward Tufte’s claim, “There is no such thing as information overload. There is only bad design.”

Over the past few years at Kenway, most of the engagements on which I have worked have been in the business intelligence and analytics space. Given the consultative nature of our engagements, I often find myself creating proof-of-concepts for executives seeking to leverage data for faster and more efficient decision making.

Such projects are sometimes small in terms of scale, but highly complex as requirements are ambiguous. In my experience, these requirements often miss out on capturing the need for simple, yet effective visualizations. In cases where they do capture that need, it is usually a low-priority/negligible requirement: “Armaan, don’t spend too much time on prettying it up, we just need a mock-up ready by the end of this sprint.”

I find it a fundamental and all-too-common problem that the power of data is underestimated, coupled with a lack of understanding that effective visuals can act as perfect exponents. After all, infographics transcend some of the most common obstacles in communication, including language barriers, time limitations (i.e. time-to-insight), poor engagement, and shareability. They are a tool not used often enough in the business world.

Visual aid on day-to-day basis

 

Slide decks at work, signs at an airport, newspaper cartoon strips, memes, etc. – all are examples of infographics that guide, entertain and alert us at every step in our day-to-day lives.

At their core, the purpose of visuals is to make it easier for our minds to process a heavy load of information within milliseconds. Effective visuals require little to no verbal or written explanation and allow users to understand the key message within seconds of looking at them. This ultimately saves a significant amount of time spent going back and forth between the presenter and the audience simply to articulate basic concepts. The human brain is known to process images and visuals up to 60,000 times faster than an equivalent amount of text. In the context of our short, seven-minute average attention span, infographics instantly provide the highest return on investment (ROI) by offering all the takeaway information on a platter.

What qualifies as an effective visual?

The purpose of infographics is to grab and capture audience attention while minimizing ambiguities or questions in a reader’s mind. Potential methods for achieving this can be broken down into three high-level categories:

  1. Avoiding biased, misleading data interpretation
  2. Choosing the right type of graphic
  3. Maintaining focus on key messages

Avoiding biased, misleading data interpretation

Distorting data by showing too much or too little hampers the viewer’s ability to interpret the most critical information. Consider the two charts below displaying the exact same dataset. At first glance, the chart on the left gives the impression of a wide gap between the percent of “Yes” and “No” votes, whereas the one on the right suggests otherwise.

In this case, truncating the vertical axis makes a difference in how an audience may understand the graph.

Choosing the right type of graphic

Not all charts are equal, and some do a better job of delivering key messages than others. Using an appropriate visual – be it in the form of a graph, chart or even cartoon – can prove critical in making it easy for an audience to understand the key message.

Choosing the right chart almost always depends on the nuances of your readership, experience level, and familiarity with the context of an analysis. Consider the two visuals below. Both are meant to describe call volumes from one prompt to another in an IVR[1] system for paying bills. At first glance, the table depends on the human mind to connect the dots between which caller is going from one prompt to another. However, when the same information is presented in a Sankey diagram, it reduces this burden by directly depicting it in a flow format and eliminating/minimizing any need for the human mind to process such “nitty-gritties.”

Table of Call Flow Volume:

StartEndVolume
Welcome MsgSelect Language11
Select LanguageConfirm Account Num7
Select LanguageAccount Type2
Confirm Account NumAccount Num3
Confirm Account NumPurpose of Call4
Purpose of CallGoodbye Msg1
Purpose of CallPay Bill1
Pay BillAgent1

Sankey Diagram of Call Flows:

Different charts can be used for presenting different kinds of information. For example, how about a fishbone diagram to illustrate root-cause-analysis, or a tornado chart to illustrate sensitivity analysis? Graphics often depend on the number of variables being visualized and whether they’re continuous or discrete (categorical) variables.

The infographic below provides a guide/starting point for visualizing different types of information based on context, as well as type and number of variables.

Source: Doug Hull – MathWorks

Maintaining focus on key messages

Cluttered infographics tend to distract audience attention away from key messages, while minimal infographics tend to maintain audience attention on important data points. One way to evaluate this condition is to consider the data-ink ratio of a visual. It’s defined as the amount of ink used to present actual data versus the amount of ink used in the entire display.

Consider the two charts below. Both are trying to deliver the same set of information about calories of different foods in comparison to that of bacon.

The chart on the left has a low data-ink ratio as it uses an unnecessary amount of color, while the one on the right has a high data-ink ratio since ink is only being used to highlight important data points (in this case, bacon). Leveraging not only color but details like size and fonts can prove critical for directing the attention of your audience to the most important pieces of information.

Kenway’s Approach to Information Insight

There is no cookie-cutter solution when it comes to visual analytics. However, our expertise in this space and obsession with all things data can help put valuable visual analytics to work for agencies and businesses of all kinds.

At Kenway, we take a three-pronged approach to Information Insight, that encompasses Data Governance, Data Management, and Business Intelligence & Analytics:

Data visualization is simply a subset of our Business Intelligence & Analytics service and presents a direct link between technology and business counterparts. Helping our clients translate complex ideas into meaningful, descriptive information gives them the ability to reduce costs, identify new opportunities, and initiate data-driven decision making – all at a faster speed to insight.

Interested in learning more? Read about Kenway’s Information Insight Capabilities here on our website, or reach out to us at info@kenwayconsulting.com.

 

[1] Stands for ‘Interactive Voice Response, ’ is a technology that allows a computer to interact with humans through voice.

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