By Chris Valas
Did you know that people today have an attention span of just eight seconds? That means you only have about seven seconds to get your point across before a viewer’s attention moves on.
When a worker is presented with a new visual – in this case, a dashboard or report – the brain will expend great amounts of energy to learn what it means. However, if the learning curve becomes too steep or the information simply doesn’t make sense, our brains give up.
So how can we get the right information across to our users quickly and in a way that makes sense instantly? The answer lies in the way the human brain processes information.
In one minute, the average person can read about 225 words – but it only takes a tenth of a second for a person to see and understand a visualization. And because we process images faster than text, dashboards are a great way to present data and help people understand the information they need.
The idea is to boil down a large amount of data into a few key ideas that will easily fit into an understandable context. A few visualization best practices can help accomplish this: Graphics and charts should be simple and easy to interpret; related items should be grouped together; and the most important items should be visually prominent.
Sounds simple, right? But not all brains are created equal. In fact, most of us favor one side of the brain over the other. While a left-brain person may be more analytical and logical, a right-brain person may be more thoughtful and intuitive.
To design a successful dashboard, you must take into account how both right and left-brain thinkers process information, as well as what decisions these users want to make.
Right Brain vs. Left Brain
One of the best ways to validate your dashboard design decisions is by determining whether your users are mostly left- or right-brain thinkers.
Left-brain users prefer to see the data rather than visuals. They want to know specifics of how they are being informed and how the data was created. For a user like this, a tabular dashboard view is probably more appropriate than a visual representation.
In contrast, right-brain users want to quickly view the data from all aspects of the dashboard at once. Hence, the design and visuals are more important to them, and they may need a strong comment section so they can get additional guidance as they view the data. Right-brain users are also more likely to want to take the data with them to share and collaborate with others.
When you bring together data, storytelling, and visuals, you are appealing to both the left and right side of the brain. The left is responsible for the facts that go into the dashboard, and the right takes those facts and makes sense of them in relation to the context.
Meeting Your Users’ Needs
So, how do you determine how your users process information? Start by asking them a few key questions: “What information do you need from me? What form do you need it in? What do you need or want to understand about this data?”
Have your users draw their thoughts on a whiteboard, and present your dashboard concepts so users can contribute their comments. Show them what you think you’re presenting, and ask where it’s working and where you need to make changes. Don’t just do this once at the beginning. Continue to show your users samples and ask their feedback over and over.
Basically, talk and draw first, build later. By fully understanding what users want to get out of the data and how they want to view it, you can provide them with the right dashboards to make decisions.
Using Visuals to Tell a Story
Remember that while facts alone can be useful to your users, it’s the context of those facts that matters. To provide that context, you have to deliver a compelling story.
For example, perhaps there’s a piece of data that your manager wants on the department dashboard: percentage increase in sales this month. This number is only relevant in relation to the history of the number. Rather than simply placing the isolated number on your dashboard, you should also include the history of that number as a time series, marking this month’s number with a label or a distinguishing color. This will appeal to both right- and left-brain thinkers.
How much history you show on a chart depends, again, on your audience. Remember, you’re directing your story at a particular group of people. Do they look at this number every month and have an understanding of the growth average? Or do they need additional context and background?
As you think about it, you’ll soon realize that most numbers should always be presented in context. Sitting alone, a number can literally mean almost anything. Taken in context and explained by the whole story, not only does it mean something specific, it can move your audience to take action.
The Bottom Line
Taking the time to get to know your users can mean the difference between a valuable dashboard with high user adoption and one that is largely ignored or forgotten. By looking at how people process information, you can create the right level of visual content for your audience – whether a high-level graphical overview or a way to drill down and view the numbers.
Ultimately, you’ll be able to give users the story they need using data they can trust.
Chris Valas, senior director of program management and user experience at Logi Analytics, has over 30 years of engineering and program management experience. Prior to joining Logi Analytics, Chris was the owner of Superient Consulting, where he helped Fortune 100 companies execute technology projects and manage product development. Chris holds a Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering from Michigan State University and Masters of Science in Electrical Engineering from Northeastern University.
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