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Five Ways People Interpret Charts

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Data and information visualization is constantly changing and is influenced by psychology, neuroscience, and perception science. According to Scott Berinato, author of Good Charts, these specialties have revealed five insights into data and information visualization that communicators may follow.

Five Human Traits

1. When people are looking at charts, they do not go in order from left to right.

2. People first see items that stand out.

3. Humans are only capable of seeing a few things at a time.

4. People try to make their own connections and interpretations of data.

5. It is common for people to connect analogies, color relationships, and metaphors to data.

People don’t look at charts the same way they read a book. There is no set order from left to right or up and down. Research shows that those with expertise in the subject matter contained in the charts will read the charts more efficiently than someone who is not familiar with the context. Therefore, pertinent, accurate data will always be more effective than something you may consider “easy to read”.

Human vision goes directly to contrast and change. Using bright colors, intersecting lines and charts that clearly show one dominant point are usually the most viewed, shared and referenced.

Focusing on the most important data point and making it stand out are good ways to make a chart stand out in the mind of a reader.

Since people can only process a few things at once, eliminating extraneous data points can help the reader focus on the message you are trying to convey. If a chart is too complicated or messy, readers can be confused by trying to decipher what is important to them. If a chart gets complicated for the reader, they are likely to tune out and not absorb the data you want them to understand.

Humans try to make sense of the data they see. They make their own interpretations and ask internal questions like, “What am I looking at?” and “What does this mean?” People will note each data point they see and make their own assumptions. As the reader makes mental notes of the data points the see, they put a story together in their minds. This data point leads to that point and together they mean something. If the chart is well designed, readers will get an accurate interpretation of the message. If the chart makes minor data more prominent, or makes a major point less dominant, it could lead to incorrect interpretation of the data.

The human brain uses expectations and prior experiences to make assumptions. For many people North is up, down is negative, red is warm and green means go. When communicators use these “norms” in a contradictory way, it can confuse the information and the reader may miss the point. If someone says, “This job is a piece of cake,” most people would assume and interpret that as the job being easy. If you were talking about being a police officer or President of the United States, this description would be confusing and ineffective. Keeping these common human interpretations simple, without contradicting them is a good way to keep data visualization coherent.

Since data and information visualization is constantly changing, it is important to keep data visualization focused on the important data points, designed in an impactful way, simple and to-the-point, and conscious of societal norms and assumptions. This will ensure that your audience is drawn to the data, engaged with the data, and hopefully informed and influenced by it.  

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