Sunday, November 20, 2011

eLearning: Tips for Better Data Representation

by AJ George

I recently attended an Edward Tufte course on "Presenting Data and Information." If you are unsure of who Edward Tufte is, I would suggest checking out his Wikipedia page.

Here are some of the top tips I took away from the course:

Stop Assuming Your Audience is Dumb

Have you noticed that PowerPoint presentations and eLearning modules will often do the "slow reveal," only showing one bullet point at a time? Why do we do that? Do we think that our audience cannot handle all the information at once? That their poor, feeble brains will explode if the words appear before we say them?

Tufte advised to do away with the slow reveal, citing that using it makes you a bit "authoritarian." Let your audience decide what they need and want to read, and when.

Tufte pointed out that readers of George A. Miller's "The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information," who deduced that only seven items belong on lists or slides, must have mis-read the paper. Tufte said that the correct number of items that belong in a list is zero. He felt that the real point of Miller's paper, among other things, was to suggest ways to place unlike data into context so as to make them easier for an audience to remember and understand. Perhaps one way to do away with the slow reveal would be to do away with the bullets you wish to reveal.

Think More Logically About Data Placement

Related to assuming your audience is dumb, do you really need to break up information into five different graphs on different PowerPoint slides? Could the information be compiled into one well-designed chart or graph instead? In Tufte's Beautiful Evidence he presents a clear and concise chart on cancer survival rates and then goes on to show how convoluted the evidence becomes when broken into many charts in PowerPoint, full of what he refers to as "chartjunk." You can see the example for yourself here in Tufte's online forum.

Additionally Tufte pointed out the seemingly obvious (but often overlooked) idea to provide data side by side for comparisons as well as placing important things adjacent in space. Don't make your audience leaf through pages or wait for a new slide to see the information as it relates to other relevant information. Put it all out there--together and at once.

Streamline Design

While Tufte advocated providing more (in fact, as much as possible) information in our data representation, he was clear that he did not mean more stuff, ie "chartjunk."

Things that can be removed:

  • Drop shadows. (I know, this one hurts; I like drop shadows too.)

  • Boxes around information. (He gave the example that tobacco companies are forced to add Surgeon General warnings to their products. They slap them on there in all caps with a big box on it. Do you think it's a coincidence that this doesn't improve the readability at all?)

  • Linking lines without annotation. (Check out this link for more on this). Particularly pay attention to the graphic from Page 14 in his book for a good example of how linking lines can be annotated to give the chart more meaning. There is also a good example of eliminating boxes around information right below that on the page.)

Make the Information Your Interface

According to Tufte, "The best design can do is get out of the way." He suggested making the information the interface and was very happy to see gadgets with touch interfaces take off, eliminating the use of a mouse and the clutter of scroll bars.

For your viewing pleasure, check out this presentation Tufte made to Apple on where the iPhone's interface was strong and where it could use some work. And then, head over to Engadget to check outthis post on a concept phone by Nokia. While still just a concept, the idea that this is the future of design and making the information the interface is pretty exciting.

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