Data Presentation: Tapping the Power of Visual Perception - InformationWeek
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8/25/2004
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Data Presentation: Tapping the Power of Visual Perception

Why do we quickly comprehend some forms of data presentation, and not others? The answer is vital to designers of decision-support applications. This installment of our series connects insight into the process of vision with presentation best practices.

Business intelligence software alone doesn't enable you to make sense of data and effectively present it to others. Working with information to understand it, determine what should be done about it, and effectively communicate that message to others requires more than knowing where to click with the mouse. Business graphs and, to a lesser degree, tables of data communicate visually. The degree to which your data presentation effectively and efficiently communicates depends on how well you tap into the power of visual perception. To do that, you must know something about visual perception: what works, what doesn't, and why. Just making a graph pretty isn't doing your job. You need to paint a clear and powerful picture that makes people sit up, take notice, and say "Ah ha!"

Whenever I'm asked to describe myself, whether professionally or in general, one of the first terms that come to mind is "teacher." Part of what drives me at a core level is a desire to help people learn so that their lives are enriched with important new information and skills. This trait is intimately related to another that also fundamentally defines me: I am a "learner." I love to understand things. I don't just want facts; I want explanations. How does it work? Why does this work, and that doesn't? What is it about this that makes it stand out from the others? I believe that most people perform better at their jobs, even jobs that are seemingly mundane, when they understand what works, what doesn't, and why. This is especially true for knowledge workers.

Better than anyone else that I've encountered in my work, Colin Ware explains how visual perception works and how it applies to data presentation. In the preface to his book, Information Visualization: Perception for Design, he explains why he believes it is important to understand visual perception:

"Why should we be interested in visualization? Because the human visual system is a pattern seeker of enormous power and subtlety. The eye and the visual cortex of the brain form a massively parallel processor that provides the highest-bandwidth channel into human cognitive centers. At higher levels of processing, perception and cognition are closely interrelated, which is the reason why the words "understanding" and "seeing" are synonymous. However, the visual system has its own rules. We can easily see patterns presented in certain ways, but if they are presented in other ways, they become invisible.... If we can understand how perception works, our knowledge can be translated into rules for displaying information. Following perception-based rules, we can present our data in such a way that the important and informative patterns stand out. If we disobey the rules, our data will be incomprehensible or misleading."

When compared to our other senses (hearing, smell, taste, and touch), which are like narrow alleyways paved in cobblestones, vision is like a superhighway.

From Light to Thought

Figure 1 provides a visual representation of the primary components of visual perception. We don't actually see physical objects; we see light, either emitted by objects or reflected off of their surfaces. This light enters our eyes through an opening in the iris called the pupil. When we focus directly on objects, the emitted or reflected light shines on a small area on the retina at the back of the eye called the fovea. The retina consists of millions of light receptors, subdivided into two basic types, rods and cones. Rods sense dim light and record what they detect in black and white. Cones sense brighter light and record what they detect in color.

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