Seeing is more than believing, it's knowing

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optical illusion

flickr/alubavin

Visualization tools have been around for a long time. Timelines, as I've noted here before, go back more than 100 years and the hoary pie chart dates to 1801. Humans excel at interpreting data when it's presented visually compared with culling through endless tables packed with numbers in columns and rows.

This isn't just supposition. It's proven fact. Recent independent research by Mindlab International quantified how much more efficiently the human brain works when visually assessing information compared with looking at data presented in text as numbers and words. According to the study reported by the BBC, our brains use 20% fewer resources when evaluating visual as opposed to textual content. Further, individuals retained 4.5% more information with visual discovery tools compared to traditional software. Finally, among those people studied, individual productivity jumped 17% when using visual discovery software.

Yet despite this and other evidence about the benefits of analyzing data with visual tools, most business analysts rely on text-based data or the simple-minded static graphics in spreadsheets. The result is often paralysis by analysis. As Jean Francois Mourier observed, "The most commonly understood example of paralysis by analysis is when a project involves so much computer-generated analytical data that employees have no idea where to begin and where to end."

It's not just workers in the trenches who can be overwhelmed by the sheer volume of information they confront before making a decision. CEOs and other executives similarly face paralysis by analysis. Recent research by Dr. Lynda Shaw at Brunel University here in the UK revealed that top executives are literally "hiding" from those who expect a decision because they are so overwhelmed with data they can't make up their minds. Procrastination becomes their preferred mode of management.

"When we feel overwhelmed we start to delay making decisions," Shaw told the BBC.

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