Understanding, Fast and Slow

July 31, 2014

fast-and-slow

Have you ever felt like the only person in the room who didn’t get something? And you felt too embarrassed to ask for an explanation? Maybe it was in a classroom or business meeting or a social gathering where everyone was vigorously nodding in agreement, chuckling at an inside joke, or jumping to the next topic of discussion before you could make heads or tails of what just happened?

We’ve all been there — not understanding something as quickly as others (or so it seems) and experiencing a wave of negative feelings because of it. It starts in school: there are “bright” students who are praised for learning quickly and performing well and “dull” students who are frowned upon for being “slow,” not “applying” themselves, and getting poor grades. Rather than question the education system and the one-size-fits-most approach imposed upon us, many of us readily blame ourselves for our own perceived shortcomings: If I don’t get something, there must be something wrong with me.

The problem continues well into adulthood. Often, when we explain something to co-workers or others, we expect them to follow along at our pace: If I get it, why shouldn’t they? Worse yet, we may rid ourselves of any responsibility: If they don’t get it, too bad — that’s not my problem. We even label those who don’t match our accepted speed of comprehension — slow on the uptake, not on the ball, dim, not the sharpest knife in the drawer, etc. Sadly, the notion of explaining concepts to presumed “slow” people has spawned its own industry. Idiot’s Guides and (Fill-in-the-blank) for Dummies books provide generally useful instruction on a variety of topics, but the marketing wrapper for that content reinforces the stigma of presumed stupidity. Despite the light-hearted tone and humorous illustrations, the message behind such books is that anyone who needs a little extra help to get by in life is somehow inferior. Why does the thoughtful, clear explanation of anything have to be targeted to “idiots” and “dummies”? And when did intelligence become associated with how fast someone learns something?

Attitudes towards learning and rates of comprehension need to evolve to accommodate the diversity of thinking styles different people possess. To start, we need to accept the fact that slow isn’t necessarily bad and fast isn’t necessarily good. We also need to move away from the default solution to just make things more visual because we process more information more quickly through our eyes (as it stands, we’re still not doing a very good job of maximizing visual thinking to accelerate understanding). Effective communication that “clicks” for everyone relies on having a firm grasp of what you’re communicating and a knowledge of principles for structuring and presenting your content, whatever content and format it may be. I find these guidelines particularly useful:

  1. Show the whole picture, then focus on the parts. Just starting with detail or component pieces makes it hard to see how everything fits together and may alienate those who are unfamiliar with the larger system. A bird’s-eye view of content helps establish boundaries and relationships, so that learning is cumulative and associative from one part to the next.
  2. Provide persistent navigation and orientation. The longer the presentation or amount of content, the easier it is for someone to lose track of where they are and get confused. Much like a physical space, guiding someone through new or difficult content requires markers and signposts to let them know how far they’ve gone, how much is left, and of course, where the end is. A mini table of contents on every page of a presentation can help mark the journey: each section can be “lit up” when it’s active and greyed out when it’s not. Even a simple “three things” or “five things” construct can help make information memorable.
  3. Set checkpoints to confirm understanding. It’s easy to march right through an explanation or presentation of something we’re familiar with. It’s also easy to forget what it’s like not to be familiar with that same material, which is why it’s essential to regularly confirm understanding — genuine understanding — with an audience in-person. Slow down, scan people’s body language, look for frowns or squints, and even if the telltale signs aren’t visible, proactively ask “did that make sense?” or “should I repeat that?” to see where further explanation is needed. Often, requests for clarification don’t come on their own, so encourage questions — just don’t call them “stupid” questions.
  4. Prepare multiple explanations. A single, literal explanation of a technical subject may work perfectly well… for a technical audience. Multiple metaphorical explanations, in which concrete, tangible examples represent abstract or complex concepts, can be devised for almost anything and for almost every audience. You can usually tell when someone knows their stuff when they can easily generate compelling illustrations of the same thing using rich, memorable metaphors in order to bridge an understanding gap.
  5. Promote patience. This is probably the toughest of all. Not only is it important for the explainer/presenter to be patient with an audience and do whatever it takes to help them get something, but it is vital that group members (when dealing with a team setting) manage their behaviors and not intimidate those who need more time or effort to process. Collaborative work suffers when team members possess different levels of understanding about their project, so it benefits the entire team to bring everyone up to speed and leave no one behind.

For some, making sense of the world is a race down a highway. For others, it’s a winding, rambling road. Regardless what pace suits our audience, we still need to ensure they move toward understanding at a speed that suits them best — whether we’re information designers or not.


The Things You Don’t See

May 31, 2014

things-you-dont-see

Information design, by nature, is concerned with making sense of the known: data, facts, observations, ideas. It involves taking existing content and putting it in a format that makes it more readily know-able. But rarely does information design acknowledge the missing, the unknown.

A recent talk by Andy Kirk on representing the absence of data in visualizations rekindled my thinking on how much we underestimate “known unknowns” or completely miss the “unknown unknowns” in a given situation. While Andy highlights the challenges of graphically depicting a zero quantity as well as the visual and narrative impact of emptiness in data display, I see a parallel set of challenges in the conceptual, non-quantitative side of information design: how do you map a comprehensive understanding of a situation beyond what’s readily given and outside of one’s own frame of reference? (To clarify, the “conceptual, non-quantitative” work I’m referring to here isn’t about making infographics but about solving complex problems in organizations.)

Solid fact-finding and content gathering provide the raw material for information design. Asking the right questions and getting the necessary answers, however, can mean different things to different people. In conceptual information design, who, what, when, where, why, and how span a broad range of observable phenomena to be captured and analyzed (people, places, ideas, connections, processes, contexts, comparisons, etc). But the person framing the questions can only do so from their point of view and with the skills and expertise they possess at the time. Biases certainly affect the quality of fact-finding, but a lack of contextualization and systems thinking, among other awarenesses, can severely hinder information design work. Below are just a few blind spots in the early stages of information design work that can constrain understanding and potentially lead a project down the wrong path:

1. We don’t see what’s right in front of us.

We can easily ignore important pieces of information because they may seem too obvious or “common sense” (which isn’t so common at all). Our familiarity blinds us to knowledge that we take for granted but that may be completely foreign to someone else, so when we visualize a current reality and load it with facts, we may omit crucial details that an “outsider” needs in order to build understanding. Stepping outside ourselves and seeing the world from a newcomer’s perspective allows for more inclusion and inroads to unfamiliar territory.

2. We don’t see what’s just outside our field of view.

It’s easy for us to cling to all the facts we know for the sake of advancing a project towards completion, but the resulting picture we create may be far from complete and lack the clarity and accuracy that a situation may require. Gathering input from different perspectives, whether it’s a range of stakeholders, diverse sources of information, or literally a different vantage point, can help ensure a 360º view of a situation (much like we use space probes to see the dark side of the moon, which never faces Earth). And when there’s still a missing part of the picture, we should be able to denote it as “missing” or “other” in a visualization.

3. We don’t see what’s changing.

Change and flux are challenging to reconcile in information design. When something new is about to happen, the very fact that the change will happen may slip through the cracks and go unacknowledged in the shuffle of everyday work… until the change is announced and compliance is expected. Leadership transitions, large-scale reorganizations, technology updates/launches, and other organizational changes can significantly derail an information design project if they’re not recognized and addressed early enough. Anticipating and incorporating discussion of change and synchronizing communications (visualizations, training, etc) to the timeline of change can help alleviate the shock of the new.

4. We don’t see ahead into the future.

Facts and data rooted in past or present observations are the conventional inputs for information design projects. However, certain types of information design work require looking beyond what is towards what could be when exploring a problem. Information design for strategy development, for instance, depends heavily on both a firm understanding of the present and a clear vision of a desired future in order to bridge the gap between them. Thoughts and ideas about what tomorrow might look like, even the most far-flung and imaginative, are critical inputs into the process. Even if some elements of the future vision are fuzzy or undefined, saying so in a visualization enables a team of stakeholders to have a conversation on those elements and define an approach around them.

5. We don’t see what’s unfavorable or inconvenient.

As much as we want to impose Spock-like objectivity on information design work, the simple truth is that humans are subjective creatures strongly inclined to do what they want to do (or what they’re told to do). We may avoid delving into areas that are too difficult to deal with, too personally aggravating, or just not interesting enough, and in the process we sacrifice valuable content for comfort. Sometimes, we may not be aware we’re closing doors on things we don’t like. On the client/stakeholder side, they may evade certain questions or flag some sensitive topics as off-limits (even though they may still be important parts of the picture) or there may be content that is masked off by bureaucratic red tape. In both personal and organizational contexts, the key is to emphasize the value of acquiring the knowledge, however difficult it may seem: aside from deepening understanding of a situation, it may spawn new thinking and improve the quality of the outcome.

These are just initial (choppy) thoughts on the subject, and there is much more to say on the topic of biases, but the main point of this post is simple: There is no such thing as perfect knowledge or perfect information design. Even the best efforts to map a complex space or fill every bucket of content can fall short. Being aware of our blind spots makes us better equipped to handle new and more complex situations by forcing us to see more of the world with different eyes, rather than simply accepting the view from within our cozy little comfort zone.


Rational Thinking Made Tangible

March 31, 2014

rational_thinking

Over the years, I’ve come to understand that information design work is as much a process of reasoning and investigation as it is an activity of pure design decision-making and production. In the earliest stage of my career, I thought information design was only about making graphics that put facts and figures in a clear, understandable format. I assumed that “clear” and “understandable” meant employing graphic techniques like bold color coding, ample white space, good typography, and descriptive illustration. My design education introduced me to the formal principles and standard guidelines for doing design work, like color theory and grid systems, along with the time-honored maxims like “less is more” and “if you can’t make it bigger, make it red.” I believed I had all the ingredients and the tools to do proper information design work, with a generous dose of ego thrown in.

But the more I actually did the work and the more exposure I had to different challenges, the more gaps I uncovered in my own “expertise.” If something made sense or triggered an “aha!”, the graphic designer in me attributed the success primarily to design as I understood it — the skillful arrangement of elements on a page — and little else. What I didn’t fully acknowledge was the “why” behind information design — why does that particular arrangement of elements work. And what do “clear” and “understandable” really mean?

What makes information design work?

The answer to that question stems from a widely-circulated quote attributed to Edward Tufte, from his book Visual Explanations:

Good information design is clear thinking made visible.*

What immediately strikes me about this definition is the order of ideas: clear thinking precedes visualization. It’s a simple point, but a critical one when discussing foundational aspects of information design. The ability to reason and apply rigorous logic to understanding-related challenges is what enables the effective design of information, in any form. In practice, I think “clear thinking made visible” could broadly refer to a continuum of activities:

  • applying a knowledge of principles and rules behind systems to making sense of situations
  • creating and using frameworks for organizing content (thoughts, ideas, data, text, etc)
  • designing interfaces for those frameworks using a variety of methods, tools, and techniques (To clarify, I’m using the word “interface” loosely to refer to visual, aural, spatial, tactile, and maybe even gustatory and olfactory means of accessing and interacting with information, not just technology-based interfaces.)

There’s a lot to unpack in those three bullets, perhaps in future posts. For now, I’m mainly interested in reframing information design to account for the bigger, invisible picture that happens in the “pre-visual” or “pre-artifact” stages. What I hope to see, sooner rather than later, is a shift away from the narrow graphic design-centric perspective that has hindered understanding and growth of the field and towards a cognition-centric perspective that embraces the full scope and potential of what information design is and does below the surface.

With that in mind, I propose a revision of Tufte’s quote to something like this:

Effective information design is rational thinking made tangible.

There are three key words here:

Effective: Given the ever-expanding range of stuff passing as information design these days, it would seem necessary to distinguish works as effective or ineffective at enabling understanding, rather than simply “good,” which has its own subjective meaning. The word “effective” may also promote a greater focus on how information design functions holistically, rather than just how it looks or how it works alone.

Rational: Saying “rational” instead of “clear” thinking helps put a finer point on the type of thinking involved in information design — thinking that subscribes to reason; “clarity” alone may only suggest that thoughts are distinct and well-defined, complete statements, but they may lack any basis in logic.

Tangible: Information design can take many forms once it has passed through the conceptual, “figuring out” stages. The word “tangible” need not only refer to objects or artifacts but to those things that can be experienced directly.

Information design has a long way to go before it will break free from conventional notions of what it is and can — or can’t — be. Greater awareness of the upstream information design process is necessary, as are required studies in cognitive science and logic. Understanding the brain and how it works, from the theoretical to the practical levels, should be the next wave in information design education and practice, not more overemphasis on filling our design toolkit and producing dazzling outputs.

——–

*The full quote is “Good information design is clear thinking made visible, while bad design is stupidity in action.” After briefly Googling the quote for other instances of its use, I came across what could be its inspiration, by Bill Wheeler: “Good writing is clear thinking made visible.” It isn’t surprising that both writing and information design can be described in the same way.


Change the Conversation

January 28, 2014

blogart_2014

I’ve never been much of a talker. As much as I enjoy rich, far-ranging conversations, at heart I’m a quiet recluse who prefers silence to chit-chat. Dialogue is great and necessary, but there is a point where talk must translate into action.

Looking back on the content I’ve read over the past year, a good portion of it is commentary about some problem or situation that needs to change, but there’s little indication that any action will follow to bring about change. Twitter often feels like writing on the water — as soon as ideas are broadcast (critiques, praise, and everything in between), they either ripple outward or vanish downstream. Blog posts have a sedimentary quality, as new or recycled material settles on top of old, day after day. And while books and journal articles are great, at the end of the day they’re just static knowledge containers. These days, it feels like the only call to action is to consume more content or struggle to keep up with it. What is all of that content for?

As I suggested in my last post, information design is drowning in chatter. There is so much discussion about infographics, data displays, and dazzling visualizations that the hard work of defining and giving more structure to information design as a formal discipline is being neglected. In my own blog, I acknowledge that there’s a considerable gap between what I say and what I actually do. I complain about the state of information design and visualization repeatedly — where there’s confusion, what challenges exist, what could be done better — but I recognize I’ve done little to change the situation beyond helping clients understand the full value of information design. Some soon-to-be-launched ventures will help me practice what I preach and catapult some words and ideas into reality.

The Web is an amazing platform for self-expression, idea exchange, and knowledge sharing, but it’s up to us to step away from our computers, put down our devices, and engage in the world. We need to get better at applying all the knowledge we absorb and all tools at our disposal towards finding and creating solutions to the problems that sorely need attention.

I want 2014 to be the year where we spend a little less time “curating conversations” from the comfort of our computer screens and more time getting our hands dirty in the messy, unglamorous work of sensemaking. Not all of that work will be tweet-able, “like”-able, or Instagram-able, but it will matter, however big or small the effort is.

5 Information Design & Visualization Action Areas for 2014

  1. Mapping Context: The understanding domain, which encompasses the language, people, practices, scholarship, literature, and other components of information design and visualization, is constantly evolving, but it’s still very difficult to see the map of this territory. Some may think that it’s futile to define boundaries and set definitions because of that perpetual flux, but without even a conceptual representation of a space that is occupied and shaped by so many different fields and perspectives, there can be no understanding among the people and groups that call that place home, nor can newcomers and “outsiders” get their bearings. Maybe once we have a sense of what we all mean by information design and visualization and start to mean the same fundamental thing, we can better contextualize what we do for others in their terms and collectively help make sense of the world.
  2. Making Connections: Richard Saul Wurman says that you only learn something in relation to what you already know (in a talk he gave many years ago in NYC, he described his personal frustration with the unfamiliar: “How can I put some velcro on this shit?”). I think we all could do a better job of forging connections between the familiar and the unfamiliar, instead of constantly pursuing the “new” and “different” under the guise of trendiness or “innovation.” That means doing more to help people understand what we all do, whether we’re data visualization people, news infographics people, wayfinding people, information architects, etc. How many of us have a crisp, clear, one-sentence description of our work that many people can understand and relate to?  In our daily work, that means reducing the scale and apparent complexity of the unfamiliar into human terms. One great example of this I found recently is the Dictionary of Numbers, which makes obscure numbers more concrete and tangible. The potential for this type of tool is immense.
  3. Expanding Community: There are many different, highly specialized communities within information design and visualization, but they don’t seem to talk much to one another. Maybe it’s me and my lack of history or possibly limited view of things, but I still don’t understand the divisions between, say, information design and information architecture communities, or information design and data visualization communities. When I peer into each little “world” encapsulated in their respective community organization sites and Twitter conversations, I see vibrant discussion and the occasional mention of a neighboring field or overlapping community, but I don’t often see deliberate efforts to bridge across to those neighbors and expand communities (unless you consider open calls to participate in conferences with broad categories or comment fields on blog posts active invitations). We all can be territorial for a variety of reasons, and the thought of extending a hand of fellowship towards foreign “tribes” may seem uncomfortable to some, but related to the first two points above, the benefits far outweigh the drawbacks. HelpMeViz is among the most promising communities I’ve seen recently that doesn’t simply celebrate shared interest in data visualization — it welcomes productive discussion around data visualization projects needing input. More physical and online platforms for teaching and guidance in this still fuzzy domain are sorely needed.
  4. Considering Consequences: One of the biggest ongoing problems affecting the perception and understanding of information design and visualization is the glut of (mostly bad) “infographics” and their sensationalistic promotion. It’s old news that marketing and graphic design have misappropriated the form and function of visual information displays to suit aesthetic and commercial interests, but the consequence is that information design and visualization are becoming too closely and too narrowly associated with empty, unintelligible, and irrelevant illustrations of facts and figures and artistic or technical experiments that serve only their creators. The reality is that those more expressive outputs won’t go away. Some argue that they are necessary elements or “disruptors” of the larger visualization ecosystem. Still, there still needs to be a clearer delineation between what is playful and what is serious. I would go so far as to distinguish what is fake from what is real. Information design and visualization, at their core, deal with enabling understanding and informing action, and we need to recognize work that serves that purpose — in both practical and meaningful ways. And we need to emphasize that information design and visualization span far more challenges than just making pictures of data and far more outputs and outcomes than infographics and data visualization alone, contrary to what blogs and magazine sites may say. We have more than enough “infographics” that leave us thinking “so what?” or “huh?”. It’s time to show that information design and visualization can — and do — make a real difference in the world.
  5. Championing Clarity: It’s a simple point, but one that is easily forgotten: we all can and should do more to make life easier for ourselves and others in the ways we interact and communicate with each other. Being a practitioner of any sort in information design and visualization should mean that an understanding sensibility is “always on” and a part of everyday life — not just when a project or client demands it. Let’s speak in a way that everyone can understand, and not assume others share our same lexicon. Let’s listen and take time to truly understand what others say and express, so we can respond in meaningful ways. Let’s slow down and cross one understanding challenge at a time, instead of jumping to conclusions about what a solution or answer should be. Let’s start simple when we’re explaining something, visually, verbally or both, so we don’t leave anyone behind. And let’s share our skill and expertise to help others, even in small ways, make clarity a habit.

It’s already the end of January, and there’s lots of work to be done. I hope to see more positive, constructive effort in 2014, as well as some fresh ideas and approaches to the areas I’ve listed. In the meantime, stay tuned for updates…


The Real Meaning of Information Design

November 29, 2013

real-info-design

Will we ever dig our way through all this information design content and hit the bedrock beneath?

We’re in the midst of an information design information overload. Blogs, books, courses, and workshops proliferate, covering every hot topic under the sun: big data, data visualization, infographics, “vintage” information design, software, etc. And while there are a few helpful guides along the way to navigate through this space, digging through the layers of content and finding not just the gems of knowledge but the very foundation of information design can be daunting. My goal in this post is to address the gap between what information design looks like today and what it really is by surfacing some of the most important (and interrelated) aspects of information design that are either implicit in a variety of resources or missing entirely.

What information design is really about:

1. Problem solving, not just visualization

Information design is commonly associated with end results: infographics, diagrams, data displays, and other kinds of outputs. This association with finished products can give the false impression that information design is only about visualizing facts and data, while overlooking the cognitive activities that information design is intended to enhance. Effective information design supports problem solving by giving structure to thought along the entire problem solving process, whether it’s in figuring out what problem to solve, organizing facts and data, finding patterns and synthesizing insights, or generating solutions aligned to a particular goal. And the form that information design takes at each step in the process need not be a perfectly polished digital visualization — hand-drawn sketches, color-coding systems, spatial organization schemes, and other sense-making methods all work to enable understanding.

2. People and purpose, not just tools and technology

Many blogs and books focus on the how of information design, like what software to use or how to construct different kinds of charts. Craft and technique are valuable to know and gain proficiency in, but what’s not often discussed in great depth is understanding who we’re designing for and why they need our help. Information design at its core is about helping people achieve their goals within a given context, whether they’re customers, patients, or citizens. How information designers achieve that goal may vary, as the toolkit continuously grows and evolves. What is fundamental and unchanging in all information design work is being highly attuned to people’s needs and defining their challenges in a way that guides the path to a meaningful solution.

3. Guidance and instruction, not just visual presentation

Related to points 1 and 2 above, many works of information design tend to be dense with tightly formatted content, which a viewer is left to deconstruct and decipher. Rather than make life easier, these “rich” visualizations require more time and effort to extract meaning because the information designer plays back the same content they received — without synthesizing it into a more digestible form — and adds a layer of graphic design following some aesthetic conventions of information design. True information design must go many steps beyond pure presentation and find the shortest path to understanding, removing all barriers and minimizing effort. That means guiding a viewer from an overview gradually to the detail, showing a whole and then breaking it into its parts, or connecting a new concept to something familiar. Information design should seek to create an ecosystem of understanding, where a potential gap or grey area is supported or reinforced by another resource, like direct phone or chat links to a live person, or signs and information at critical points of need along a service or experience journey. The idea is to do as much as possible to “be there” to help someone without physically being there.

4. Principles and frameworks, not just creative techniques

Generally speaking, information design thinking is largely absent from information design doing. The widely appropriated aesthetic of information design — pies, bars, diagrams, icons, and other graphic methods for visual explanation — creates a false sense of authority or credibility when applied superficially to content, as is common with the ongoing infographic/info illustration trend. This growing popularization of information design techniques reduces the practice of information design to a “look,” and may free creators of information design from any obligation to think deeply about the content and make sense of it first. What’s more, the emphasis in many websites and publications has increasingly (and maddeningly) shifted from information that is logical and meaningful to information that is beautiful. Part of the reason for this is that foundational practical information design knowledge is scattered across different sources or isn’t clearly spelled out in one place. It takes years of practice and immersion in the literature (past and present) as well as teaching experience to distill the essence of information design work into basic, workhorse principles and frameworks, such as information coding systems and visual frameworks for diagramming. Once those principles and frameworks become second nature, information design can be applied to any kind and scale of challenge, from planning a meeting or learning experience to mapping out a corporate strategy.

5. Systems thinking, not just isolated efforts

Information design does not live in a vacuum — it operates within a context, be it a company or a society. For information design to have real value, it cannot remain locked in a one-off artifact that could potentially get hidden or forgotten from underuse. It needs to connect to people, ideas, and situations. It needs to be part of a living system and align with a broader rationale, whether it’s a corporate vision and mission, a brand, an existing architecture, or a workflow. Information design that exists for itself or only serves one very narrow purpose isn’t information design. Going further, an information designer needs to be mindful not just of the conceptual and organizational context, but also of the physical and environmental conditions in which their work will perform. The idea of a system extends to the lifespan of the solution: how accessible it is to different people, how legible it is in different lighting situations, how durable it is after repeated use, and how often it will need to be updated or replaced.

In time, I’m confident that more sense-making around information design will naturally happen as awareness grows about what it really is. But it will take considerable work: an earnest effort among all stakeholders to dive deep into the history, theory, and practice of information design; a willingness to share learnings and best practices with the broader information design/visualization community; an inclusive, instructive dialogue around unclear topics; and a mindfulness about how information design is represented and understood in the mainstream.


Next Page »
Copyright © 2014 Michael Babwahsingh | powered by WordPress with Barecity