Recently, a couple of us attended a workshop by Nick Desbarats, a Canadian educator and consultant on data visualization and information dashboard design. Soon after, we organized a brown bag meeting where we ordered some pizzas and listened to our colleagues talk about their learning.
Just a short time into Tomi’s presentation about practical charts and how to communicate with them, a sidebar came up on the idea of cognitive effort. It prompted an interesting discussion about how it affects chart design, and we decided to share our thoughts about it with you.
What is cognitive effort? Simply put, it’s the brain power used to interpret data or communication. Israeli psychologist and economist Daniel Kahneman describes 2 parts to the thinking brain:
- the slow, deliberate, effortful side, making decisions automatically and
- the fast, automatic, effortless side, making complex decisions.
We’re well aware that we live in times of the attention economy where human attention is a scarce commodity everyone’s fighting for. That is why we should always ask ourselves how much energy our audience is willing to invest into understanding the charts and dashboards we create for them.
We agreed that one might rush to the conclusion that we should strive for a simple design absolutely every time we work on a new chart. However, we do know that simpler is not always better
… because not all audiences are the same and we have different purposes with the diverse data we’re showing.
You should aim for simple charts if they deliver the right input for your audience. However, if a complex chart is more appropriate for data you’re presenting, then go for it – as long as you know that your audience is familiar with the data and will be able to read the chart correctly.
You can check your graphic with a help of Alberto Cairo’s visualization wheel before you publish it, in order to gauge whether your graphic is more complex or simple. And get your customer involved in the process, whenever possible.
If you want to find out more on what steps to take to ensure your designs are brain-friendly, visit our Training section and embark on the exciting process of dashboard creation!