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The Language of Infographics

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A highly skilled data analyst once said to me:

“I don’t get infographics, I don’t see the point, why are we using them?”

I can understand why she felt like that, she knew that data inside out, could identify unusual trends, and was so fluent in the norm she was able to recognise outliers and exceptions. Her audience were also familiar with the information, they had been reporting and reviewing it for years. For her, nothing else was needed. I however, had been ask to contemplate how we would deliver the story to a wider audience, one not familiar with the subject.

Trying to explain, I can refer back to a situation that happened to me a few months ago. Stood in front of a ticket machine in Frankfurt train station, on my way to get my flight home, I had the machine set to English as my German is not strong, but I realised that this didn’t change the station names. In a rush and a bit of a panic I tried to remember what the German for airport was so that I could type it into the search. Snatching a look at the departures board I see my salvation, not the name but that little plane next to it, announcing clearly the name of my sought after destination.

Not being fluent in the language, I needed the graphic.

Just like it’s difficult to teach someone how to do a job you do every day, understanding how to explain a data set you are fluent in, to someone who isn’t, can be challenging.

You need to step outside of your knowledge to breakdown the story for a different audience, sometimes an unknown audience. You have to see it from their perspective.

Just like Denzel Washington in the film Philadelphia saying,

“Explain this to me like I’m a two year old ok, ‘cause there’s an element to this thing that I just can’t get through my thick head”

His character (a lawyer) knows that his client and his client’s bosses (also lawyers) need to give evidence in a way that a jury will understand, cutting out the “lawyerspeak”. He makes them think about how they communicate the information.

Interestingly, speaking to a lawyer the other day, I found out that one of the most useful tools during trials are infographics (trial or litigation graphics). They are used not just to present the information but to tell the story, engaging people and making them, not just see the data but care about it.

This is why we use the language of infographics.

Why Infographics?

By | Data Analysis, Graphics, Infographics | No Comments

Recently I have read a large number of articles about why we should use infographics and many of them suffered from a major problem… A lot of words to explain why graphics should be used , most of them missing the wonderful graphics they were waxing lyrical about. I also have a lot of words to say on the issue but here I hope to redress the balance with some illustrative graphics.

Process Quicker

Our brains are quicker to gain information from a picture than from text showing the same thing

Click Engagement

Images generate more “likes” and “shares” than text.

Provoke a Response

A clear data visualisation can help people understand and care about the information.

Universal Images

An image is universal, it doesn’t need translating.

Cut Words, Paste Pictures

“A picture paints a thousand words”, to try and describe an image takes paragraphs.

Process Quicker

There is a figure floating around the internet that states that the brain processes images a huge amount faster than text.

As an analyst I will not perpetuate this mythical number by quoting it, currently it is unverified, however if someone can point me at the appropriate scientific study , I would be happy to make changes to this blog to reflect the facts.

Anyway, even without an exact figure, I know that often our brains are quicker to gain information from a picture than from text that is showing the same thing, especially if that information has several layers.

Haig Kouyoumdjian Ph.D. writing for Psychology Today states that;

“A large body of research indicates that visual cues help us to better retrieve and remember information. The research outcomes on visual learning make complete sense when you consider that our brain is mainly an image processor (much of our sensory cortex is devoted to vision), not a word processor. In fact, the part of the brain used to process words is quite small in comparison to the part that processes visual images.”

To me it makes sense, it’s why organisations have logos, children’s books have illustrations and signs have icons.

According to a teaching paper posted on the Social Science Research Network, 65% of people are visual learners and need to be able to see things to take them on board. New and different information is easier to remember when it is presented visually, rather than in text format.

If you want people to understand and remember your message, USE A GRAPHIC

The brain takes time to process text…an image is understood quicker

Click Engagement

When you see a web page with paragraphs of text with no pictures, what are the chances you’ll want to sit down to read it? I know I wouldn’t. With so many articles on the news feed to pull my focus I find it’s often the picture that makes me click to see more.

Apparently photos on Facebook generate more “likes” and “shares” than text, video or links. So it doesn’t surprise me that HubSpot’s social-media scientist Dan Zarrella found tweets with images are 94% more likely to be retweeted than tweets without.

Provoke A Response

Pictures leave impressions much faster and much more accurately than words can. Pictures can invoke feelings of happiness, sadness and many others. Do you want to associate a positive feeling with the product you’re selling, the outcomes you are achieving? Then insert a graphic that demonstrates your point!

I think they can also reduce an unwanted terror reaction. A lot of people I know claim “I don’t do numbers” and can be put off if things seem too mathy. A simple, clear data visualisation is often enough to calm the flight response and help people understand  and care about the figures.

Universal Images

An image is universal, it doesn’t need translating, and in general, you don’t need too much knowledge to understand it.

The perfect example is the signs that have adorned gender specific bathrooms for a very long time, well as long as I can remember. You know the ones, they come in all shapes and forms but the concept is the same. I have found, in my limited travels around the world, that they are the same in other countries as well. There have been a couple of times though, whilst frequenting a funky bar or restaurant, where they have decided to link these  gender indicating signs into the theme of the establishment. Never have I been more in need to see some of those little people than when trying to work out if I was Pen or a Cob (thank you The Swan Inn) or remembering whether amigos were of the male or female persuasion. Of course all of this was back in a time before we all had smart phones and the ability to google things.

Cut Words, Paste Pictures

“A picture paints a thousand words” and in fact to try and describe an image often takes paragraphs of text, but the best reason to use an infographic is because it can tell the whole story about the data, not just a small part of it. It also makes the information more transparent and understandable.

Infographics can provide context for data by showing relationships, revealing outliers or anomalies, and showing patterns or trends.

That’s not to say all text is bad, as per my previous blog sometimes you need several types of presentation to reach your overall audience. Often people whose attention is captured by a snappy graphic will go on to read the lengthy narrative.