Why Data Visualization Matters: It’s Funnel Optimization

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One of the reasons I like to give presentations at conferences is because it forces me to really, really, really, crystallize my thoughts. When I’m writing a blog post, I’m generally just trying to get an idea into some sort of coherent form, but conference presentations, for me, have a much higher bar for clarity and concision.

Part of my presentation at the Austin DAA Symposium earlier this month focused on data visualization. It didn’t go very deep into the mechanics of effective data visualization, but I did try to  make a strong case that the topic really matters.

Driving Action

As analysts, our ultimate goal is to drive action that delivers business value. Stop and consider what is involved in “driving action:”

A person who is empowered to act must make a decision to act.

So, really, what we’re talking about here is impacting a decision by a human being, and, if we consider that:

A decision is made based on thoughts and ideas in the brain.

That means that, as analysts, it behooves us to understand a little bit about how the brain works.

Neuroscience says…

Two guys who have had a strong professional influence on me are Stephen Few and John Medina:

Both books provide descriptions of the different types of memory, and both provide various tips for getting information to long-term memory, which is where information needs to be in order for a person to decide to act (and then follow through on that decision).

Taking those concepts and morphing them a bit cheekily into the marketing vernacular of “the funnel,” we’re talking about memory looking like this:

The Memory Funnel

Ultimately, if we don’t get the key points of our analysis into long-term memory, then there is little hope of action being taken. Just as eCommerce sites have to optimize their purchase funnel, as analysts, we need to optimize the memory funnel when presenting results.

In the case of the memory funnel the steps are actually much more distinct than the awareness/consideration/preference/etc. steps in the marketing funnel. They’re distinct…but they have some unpleasant realities.:

  • Iconic memory — this is also called the “visual sensory register,” and it’s where “preattentive cognitive processing” occurs. We are constantly bombarded with information, and our iconic memory is the first point that we are aware — subconsciously aware — of every bit of information in our field of view. Instantaneously, we are making decisions as to what information we should actually pay attention. This means that, instantaneously, we are discarding most of what we see! If a chart is unclear, our iconic memory may very well shift focus to the clock on the wall or the ugly tie being worn by the fellow sitting next to the analyst. Iconic memory is fickle and fleeting!
  • Short-term memory — this is where we actually focus and “think about what we’re seeing.” It’s that thought that is going to decide whether or not the information gets passed along to long-term memory. But, here’s the real kicker when it comes to short-term memory: it can only hold 3 to 9 pieces of visual information at once. It’s our RAM…but it’s RAM circa 1992, in that it has very limited capacity. The more extraneous information we include in our analysis results, the more we risk a buffer overrun. And, if short-term memory can’t fully make sense of the information, then it’s going to fall out of the funnel then and there.

“Sight” is the sense that we are forced to heavily rely on to communicate the results of our analyses. There is a lot of visual clutter occurring in our audiences’ worlds that we can’t control, and we’re competing with that visual clutter any time we deliver the results of our work. It behooves us to compete as effectively as we possibly can by effectively visualizing the information we are communicating.

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