Data Visualization — Part 4

Data Visualization: Designing for Attention

Design the right visuals, delivered at the right time to result in the intended interpretation, which will lead to a goal.

Kristi Pelzel
Oct 31, 2020 · 5 min read
Data Visualization: Designing for Attention
Data Visualization: Designing for Attention
iStock Data Visuals, Charts, Graphs

In previous parts of this eight-part series on data visualization, I wrote about pre-planning for context and flow, visual design, and eliminating design clutter. To compliment those foundations, think about focusing an audience on design for attention, attention to the right visuals at the right time to result in the intended interpretation, which will lead to a goal.

Understanding how people process information will help you have a holistic background as a designer, storyteller, and data analyst to support your choices when communicating.

Iconic memory is something that happens quickly.

You look at a set of numbers or see a face, but you cannot recall the information after a few moments. One way to keep people’s attention throughout a presentation, until you are ready to lead them into short and long term memory commitment, is to help them not to think.

Aspects like the intensity of color, size, and shape can be used as mental markers to lead a person’s eyes and mind without thinking too hard.

Fergus Craik and Robert Lockhart suggested that the strength of a memory trace depends upon the quality of processing, or rehearsal, of a stimulus. In other words, the more we think about something, the more long-lasting the memory we have of it (Craik & Lockhart, 1972).

Short-term memory lasts longer than Iconic memory but requires understandable information in relatable and obvious visual cues to engage our working memory.

Taking an idea from a data story and having someone move it from their short-term memory to their long term memory requires linking ideas throughout a narrative that connects recall or mental landmarks.

Go to Tableau Public and visit their Gallery. Then ask yourself these questions.

  • How are my eyes drawn across the elements on this page?
  • When I look at a data visualization for three-seconds, did I see a group or a pattern emerge?
  • Did I notice my eyes picked up on differences versus what was similar first?

If you’ve been the audience on the receiving side of data visualization, you’ll connect with how the audience feels when looking at your work.

Assumptions about the placement of text, figures, and design have been instilled in most of us for years. If we embrace these known patterns, we can leverage them for attention.

Long lines are assumed to have greater value.

________ vs. _________________________ = greater

Using bold font triggers importance and a ‘read first’ mentality when skimming.

Important vs. Important

If you want to use size to draw attention, really push the difference between objects or data. If I look at two boxes and one is only slightly bigger than the one next to it, but you are telling me something is ‘life and death,’ I might not believe you.

Audiences need to see and feel the impact! If using the size of shapes is not going to draw me in, use something else. Consider replacing objects with a line graph to see the more significant impact in a fine line.

If you can use color, use it, but be creative and use it sparingly with purpose. Shades of the same color can indicate intensity, from lighter shades indicating less and darker shades meaning more; red can indicate stop, green for go, and yellow for yield. This is common sense, but it’s easy to forget the basics when you are thinking about story structure and numerical equations.

Colors: The most common type of color blindness is red/green color blindness. Sufferers mix up red or green as part of the full color. Those affected by Protan color blindness are less sensitive to red light, while Deuteranopia’s sufferers have the same problem with green.

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  • One approach is to use both colors and symbols where users’ attention is required.
  • Use colors for purpose, not fun. The fewer colors you use, the fewer possibilities of confusion.
  • Use contrasting patterns, like checkers, lines, and dots, where red and green are necessary or place text instead.
  • Avoid combinations of Green & Red — Green & Brown — Blue & Purple — Green & Blue — Light Green & Yellow — Blue & Grey — Green & Grey — Green & Black

Cultures: Cultural awareness and emotional sensitivities should be another consideration, and as you make an effort to know your target audience. Factor this into the tone of your project.

David McCandless designed a detailed visualization showing what colors mean across cultures. In Western America and Japan, for example, red color can indicate anger or desire. Native Americas can interpret red as ‘earthy’ and energy feelings. At the same time, Eastern Europeans can view red as beauty or courage.

Leveraging design is a strategic way to plan and present information for audience attention.

Suppose you’re verbally presenting a data story in person. In that case, you have a better chance at getting people to remember your message based on long term memory being the aggregate of visual and verbal memory.

However, if you are leaving a presentation with a group or delivering a weblink for an unaccompanied client, your visuals and text are all they have. You won’t be able to see if you have their attention, and the design will have to carry the meaning of your information as intended.

*This is part four of an eight-part series on data visualization.

Part 1 — Context and Pre-Data Visualization Planning

Part 2 — Selecting Effective Visuals for Data Visualizations

Part 3- Identifying and Eliminating Design Clutter From Data Visualizations

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Kristi Pelzel

Written by

International Journalist and Communications Advisor and Consultant — based in Washington, D.C.

The Innovation

A place for a variety of stories from different backgrounds

Kristi Pelzel

Written by

International Journalist and Communications Advisor and Consultant — based in Washington, D.C.

The Innovation

A place for a variety of stories from different backgrounds

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