“A picture is worth a thousand words.” This cliche has its roots in psychology. It turns out that the human brain has a very difficult time understanding data without visualizations. Even very simple tasks (such as remembering the three words “dog, bike, and street”) are easier when they’re accompanied with visual representations instead of just written or spoken words.
As psychology professor Haig Kouyoumdjian explains, “the effective use of visuals can decrease learning time, improve comprehension, enhance retrieval, and increase retention.”
That means that effective visualization techniques are crucial for anyone who has information they need others to absorb, comprehend, and use. In other words, visualization is a key part of any effective business data strategy.
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What happens when we lack visuals?
Different neurons in the brain are dedicated to distinctly different tasks. The neurons used to process visual information make up a staggering 30% of the brain’s neural network. By comparison, only 8% of our brain is dedicated to touch and a mere 3% is dedicated to hearing. This means that humans are literally wired to take in visual information.
Perhaps that’s why people tend to be persuaded more by pictures instead of words. Think about what an image does to stir emotions and move people to action. People could read pages and pages of statistics about a tragic event like a hurricane, but it is a single picture of the damage that has the greatest impact on the response.
Without visuals, then, much of the brain is not being stimulated, and people are less likely to understand, remember, or recognize the importance of the data they’ve received.
How do visuals enhance data comprehension?
It’s not just that humans are visual creatures (though they definitely are). It’s also that visualizations make data more meaningful and applicable. Human beings are pattern-seeking animals. These tendencies are evolutionary holdovers from distance ancestors who needed them to survive a life filled with many more dangers, and now we use them to create connections between data points and build entire worlds out of nothing but our imaginations.
When these innate cognitive processes are applied to data comprehension, it becomes clear that visually displaying the patterns demonstrated in data points is a much more effective way to share them than simply handing out a written report.
What kind of visualizations are most effective?
Scott Berinato, the author of the visualization book Good Charts, has a Harvard Business Review article that explains the four main types of visualizations. He organizes these categories based on the nature of the information being presented and the purpose of using that information in the particular moment in which it is being shared.
- Idea Illustration– If the information is conceptual and the goal is to make a declarative statement about that data, this is the best type of visualization to use. These visualizations tend to be more open-ended and are excellent for demonstrating processes and frameworks.
- Idea Generation- For exploring conceptual information, this is the best type of visualization. These images tend to serve as brainstorms and jumping off points for new applications and innovative ideas. They’re great for problem solving when the issue is complex and undefined.
- Visual Discovery- This type of visualization is best for exploring data-driven information. This is a particularly important type of data visualization for businesses because it can lead to uncovering complex patterns necessary for making data-informed decisions. These visualizations result in trend spotting and deep analysis and may include things like determining the best time of day for posting a blog post or seasonal product ordering trends.
- Everyday Dataviz- The final type of visualization is used for data-driven information that needs to be declaratively stated. These visualizations are used for training and storytelling and are best suited for presentations. These images tend to be straightforward and make what seems like complicated written data information into easy-to-read images that make the point clearly and succinctly.
Understanding how the human brain processes images more effectively than words allows business owners to turn their data into visualizations that are more useful, more efficient, and better suited for creating meaningful change.
As Director of Enterprise Analytics, James helped Thomson Reuters establish data management capabilities and an enterprise-wide analytics competency.
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