Creating greater awareness of design

A couple of months ago I discussed the issue of how the excitement and hype around the visualisation/information design field, whilst justified, was a bit too insular and self-congratulatory. We needed improved definitions and more clearly articulated benefits to open up and truly exploit the undoubted potential of visualisation.

An important factor towards fulfilling this potential, and continuing to mature the visualisation field from promise to delivery, emerges from the world of sales and marketing and concerns creating a sense of dissatisfaction with the norm – in this case achieving greater awareness of flawed design.

The science of better

As somebody who studied Operational Research at degree level, I have always been fascinated by the challenge of trying to improve things, do things better. Words like things and better are fairly ambiguous and can be perceived as somewhat unambitious terms but they reflect an intention to follow up a curiosity around trying to achieve improvement. Whether that improvement is to increase the productivity of resources or to enhance the utility, efficiency or effectiveness of a product or service, optimisation challenges permeate every aspect of our lives.

But quite often people are oblivious to the fact that an optimum has not been even nearly achieved. For example, despite my degree knowledge and general instincts, I spent much of my early career in information management blindly creating graphs and information presentations with good design intent but ignorant to the principles of data visualisation. The key point here was that because I’d not been shown or made aware of the subject, I was left to discover it myself. Thankfully, eventually I did.

The primary challenge for achieving any improvement is being able to acknowledge the very existence of a problem or shortcoming – demonstrating an awareness that something could be done better and expressing a desire to challenge what exists.

Understanding design shortcomings

It is with my own experience in mind that, when I critique an example of information design that I feel displays shortcomings, I always try to be balanced, constructively explaining where and why I believe the design has demonstrated flaws.

Yesterday I posted comments about a health poster that entirely failed to fulfil its purpose – that of communicating an important health message to a specific audience. Ultimately, we have to remember that designs like this are most likely to have been created by entirely well-meaning people. The flaws they exhibit are probably a result of lack of awareness of the key principles of design and/or limited skill in executing a quality product.

The majority of us have access to great tools for creating information displays, whether it be graphs, presentations, reports or posters, but only a small percentage of us will have ever consciously thought about best design principles and an even smaller fraction will have received training. Those who haven’t been fortunate enough to learn about or be taught better practices should not be discouraged from aspiring creativity, rather they should be encouraged to learn and advance. The first stage of achieving this progression is through awareness.

Awareness, appetite and action

Over the past few years I have worked with, presented to and advised many people about striving to achieve better design of information and the comments I hear repeatedly are:

Those phrases, ‘never thought’ (awareness), ‘will change’ (appetite) and ‘do better’ (action), emerge from creating a sense of dissatisfaction amongst these colleagues, clients and customers with regards to their existing design capabilities and techniques.

Specifically, by focusing on simple messages and straightforward examples that demonstrate the importance of deliberate design – ensuring that every design property and attribute is deployed for a reason – this helps spark awareness. It triggers a curiosity and interest which encourages them to seek further, incremental learning and moves them on from novice status.

It is straightforward achievements like this which will provide the foundation on which the progress of visualisation will be built.

Health information overload

The waiting room

A few weeks ago I was sat in a doctor’s waiting room area trying to kill time before an appointment. Normally, my iPhone would come to my rescue as I try to zone out from the noise of people coughing and sneezing around me but on this occasion I’d left it at home. I was therefore left with nothing to do except gaze around the room and take in my surroundings, which revealed one of the most densely packed examples of information overload I’ve seen for a long time.

Adorning almost every spare inch of space on the main wall were hundreds of posters and fliers with health information, advice, adverts and announcements covering the full spectrum of medical topics. They weren’t particularly poorly arranged, some were stuck partially on top of another, but the individual designs of many of them were terrible examples of communication. The cumulative effect of all this information was bewildering – how on earth can any patient be expected to identify information relevant to them or their families?

Collective visual noise

I came across an infographic today that typifies the style, design and problems with many of the posters I witnessed. It demonstrates how the ‘noise’ of badly designed information, when presented en masse as a collection of competing displays, contributes immeasurably to the overwhelming sense of overload.

This is the description that accompanies the graphic:

We worked with Dr. Lee Richstone, Urologist at the Smith Institute for Urology to create a graphic that demonstrates the seriousness of prostate health. It also gives you your best tip, if you are over 45 years in age, see your urologist annually!

Does this graphic demonstrate the seriousness of prostate health?

Does it offer a ‘best tip’ to see a urologist if you are 45+ years?

Unfortunately, the answer to both these questions is absolutely no. Its not even a graphic, there are only 3 pieces of quantifiable data that could remotely be used to form a graphic (age, probability, appointment frequency).

The only thing this graphic demonstrates is that somebody has discovered WordArt and has decided to take a perfectly straightforward paragraph of text, break it down into smaller snippets  and apply a series of random font styles. Consequently, because the underlying paragraph is harder to fathom, clumsy black arrows, vigorously competing with the text for visual prominence, are required to guide the reader through the intended sequence of text.

If you apply the squint test, take a quick look at it and what stands out? Apart from the arrows, you probably notice the elements “If you are”, “1 in 6” and “annually” as the more dominant elements. However, the most critical piece of data in terms of targeting the information to the audience – “45 or over” – is probably the least instinctively noticeable item.

Critical Communication

The health service is unquestionably one of the most information rich environments and also probably the most critical context for the importance of communicating information most efficiently and most effectively. Unfortunately, bad practice in information design, whether it is relating to patient data, medical information or health advice, like the example shown here, has a significant negative impact on this exchange. Information overload, as evidenced by my experience in the waiting room, is rife and really needs to be tackled.

Microsoft’s PivotViewer data visualisation tool

As reported by ResellerNews, Microsoft has today released PivotViewer – an interactive visualisation tool designed to help browse, organise and analyse massive image collections and data sets by displaying dynamic visual summaries through your browser.

I’ve not had chance to play with it yet but from first impressions based on watching the official launch videos (and the TedTalk below) it feels like a technological mix of Google images, Tableau and Apple’s Hyperwall.

Here’s the TedTalk video from Feb 2010 with Gary Flake demonstrating the tool: