VISUALS: HOW COMPLEX DATA CAN TELL A COMPELLING STORY
Since the evolution of language from pictograms, text has been the main source of nonverbal communication. However, as the fantastic art from Greek sculpture through to medieval illuminated manuscripts show, people sought meaning through visuals long before the modern age. Now, in the era of digital communication and social media with photos, videos, memes and GIFs, every internet user has a tool for visual communication. With billions of users across visual-heavy social media, visuals are central to how these users communicate their ideas. The question remains: Are visuals actually better than text for communicating knowledge?
Research on this question is astonishingly sparse. A popular marketing myth that claims that people process visuals 60,000 times faster than text. While this myth has been debunked multiple times (see here and here), it remains a fact that visuals are eye-catching and have been at the forefront of how we learn and process complex information. In fact, data visualizations — whether navigational maps for ancient seafarers, detailed anatomical diagrams in medicine, or geneaological trees to explain heredity — have been powerful supplements to the narrative text for hundreds of years. Complex data, when seen as patterns and trends in diagrams, can tell a compelling story.
But how do visuals aid learning? A human mind is like a computer with distinct parts for input, output and storage for long-term memory. Scientists says that visuals not only help in conveying facts but also show relationships between different pieces of information. Whether the visual is semantic or pictorial, it guides the sensory memory in selecting important information, organizes it into a system for the working memory to process and integrates it into long-term memory for a wholesome learning and comprehension. Researchers have identified that the concept of signaling —for example, highlighting critical information in a different font, text or color — helps the audience look at it more frequently and for longer periods of time. Individuals also have varying information processing speeds, attention spans and focus, and hence information needs to be crafted to eliminate non-essentials, highlight essential facts and their association with each other. The foundational text of visual display is by Edward Tufte, but even his peerless work in maximizing the communication of information graphically did not quantify the advantage in communication speed of visuals over text.
We, at Nested Knowledge, present our data in distinct ways to enable easy absorption and retention of information. We believe that an interactive, data-dense visual display, with UI/UX optimized to user preferences, is the most effective way to communicate data. In the process of optimizing our programs, we found a void in scholarship around communication efficiency and the available literature on visuals versus text. Since our business is based entirely on democratizing knowledge and communicating complex information effectively, we call for information scientists to begin research on the central question in communicating: what medium does so most effectively, and by how much? Only then, we think, can we answer the question of how many words a picture is worth.
Mccrudden, Matthew & Rapp, David. (2015). How Visual Displays Affect Cognitive Processing. Educational Psychology Review. 10.1007/s10648-015-9342-2.