This is a guest post from Susan Bell - a qualitative research specialist and director of Susan Bell Research. Sue loves to conduct all forms of qualitative research, including new ways such as qualitative social media research.
She writes about and teaches best practice in qualitative research and qualitative analysis. Originally trained in quantitative research, she is always happy to design and conduct all forms of research for a broad range of industries including financial services, food & drink, government and the arts - helping her clients use research to develop better products and processes, and to communicate in the language of their customers.
Improving how we communicate to clients is not all about making charts simple, or making them entertaining. Some charts have to work in different ways from others, recognising that what may be simple and familiar to one person could be complex and new to someone else.
Cruel and Ineffective Punishment!
The way market researchers have traditionally presented survey data in slide after slide of complex tables and charts can best be described as mind-numbing cruelty. It is also a pretty ineffective way for our industry to communicate.
Seeking inspiration, I was delighted that one the papers presented at the Esomar Congress in Dublin in 2015 addressed just this issue. It was called Exploring the use of visuals in the delivery of research data and it was by Adam Frost, Tobias Stuart and Jon Puleston. They conducted ‘around 30 different exploratory experiments into the visual representation and communication of data’, using many different charts and infographics to identify the kinds of charts and infographics which:
- lead to the best recall or
- encourage curiosity to read more
How 'Thinking Fast & Slow' Helps
Their basic argument is that some pieces of communication should be grasped so quickly that the meaning will be recalled effectively while other pieces of communication demand and require greater engagement than simply grasping the message in an instant. Does this sound familiar?
It struck me that this instant versus ‘read more’ message was consistent with the work of the psychologist Daniel Kahneman. As many of you will know, in his book Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman used the terms System 1 and System 2 to describe how our brains automatically make decisions quickly and emotionally, although we all have the ability to think slowly and in a more controlled way when the circumstances are right.
- System 1 is faster, instinctive and emotional and prone to bias – similar to the recall measures mentioned above
- System 2 is slower, more cautious and analytical - similar to ‘curiosity to read more'
What I Want My Charts to Do
Putting these ideas together, I have created a communications plan for charts. I want my charts to do at least one of the following five things:
- Convey the gist quickly. When the message is simple or familiar, I want readers, audience members etc. to understand the gist of the message in an instant, and then move on.
- Encourage people to think when they need to. When the findings are new, complex or particularly important to them, I want readers, audience members etc. to spend time looking and reading and thinking about the implications. System 1 can be “gullible" and prone to biases such as confirmation bias. Sometimes, I need System 2 to be activated.
- Discourage skipping. I don’t want anyone to skip over important pieces of information, though it is OK to skim the less important bits.
- Not be oversimplified. I don’t want anyone to become a victim of their cognitive biases and consequently mis-interpret complex and important data.
- Discourage over-thinking. I don’t want anyone to spend time poring over a simple chart and over-thinking about what it means.
Design Charts with Systems 1 & 2 in Mind
If I want people to think about my data, I have to encourage them to think, not just assume they will. To do that:
- Each slide has to look easy to start. Kahneman says that "we are biased against actions that lead to regret" and will actively avoid losses. The important point for us is that loss includes lost or wasted time. In other words, to avoid the regret of wasted time our readers will avoid charts that look dull or difficult because in general readers don't start what they can't finish.
- So people grasp the idea quickly, we should use bar charts in rank order; or columns not ranked-ordered. If we use illustrations we should actually use clichéd ones that are easy to grasp in an instant (as suggested by Frost, Stuart and Puleston)
- If we want people to think "this will be easy; I will have a quick look at it" we need to present our data in a way that looks familiar. To some extent this is an argument for chart templates despite how mind-numbing endless charts all looking the same can be.
- However, ‘looking easy’ only gets System 1 activated. If you want to wake up System 2 – that is get people to ‘think’ – then we also need to add something unfamiliar. This is why we need the odd novelty chart. According to Frost, Stuart and Puleston, novelty charts used sparingly attract more thoughtful attention. If we over-tax our reader’s brain with strange charts, system 1 will kick back in again.
I would be interested to know other, fellow researchers, thoughts on this topic. You can start a discussion by visiting Susan Bell Research on Facebook, Twitter or by checking our website.