The DataHero Blog

This Is Your Brain on Data Visualization

December 9th, 2014


By now, most of us are familiar with data analysis and the power that it can provide to our organization. We have access to an unprecedented amount of information, and this is where data visualization comes in. In order to represent this analysis in the best way possible though, you need to understand why certain methods of visualization work better than others. Why do our brains process visual information so well, and how do we ensure we’re utilizing this visual processing to the best of our abilities?

Your brain processes visual stimulus first through the retina, then to the thalamus, then the primary visual cortex and the association cortex. At each stage, there are filters that our brains apply to determine whether this information is important and thus worthy of continuing through the process. We certainly don’t process everything our retina sees. How do we ensure that information is understood as quickly and easily as possible? This is where data visualization comes in.

Choose The Right Chart

Pre-attentive processing occurs within the first 200 milliseconds of seeing a visual. Color and shape are both able to be processed during this preattentive phase. This is why spotting a green M&M in a bowl of brown M&Ms is really easy, or why spotting a square chiclet in a bowl of round M&Ms is easy.

By using a bar chart instead of a line chart, we are able to see and understand within milliseconds what the data represents, and the importance of the underlying values. Adding in the right colors really allows you to ensure the correct information is emphasized and understood.

Keep it Simple

You have three different types of memory, iconic, short term and long term. Short term memory is where all the processing happens, you take the visual information your brain is receiving and combine it with your long-term memory. This is the process in the memory we want to optimize for. To do that, you have to ensure that you don’t throw more than about 7 chunks of information at your short-term memory at a time. Take a look at the following two examples.

This chart displays the top ten companies that contribute to overall revenue by date:

While this chart contains valuable information, it’s incredibly difficult to hold all the variables in your head at the same time, you have to continually move between the chart and the legend. This makes instant digestion impossible.

DataHero Top Ten Revenue-Contributing Companies

In comparison, this next chart only displays five companies.

DataHero Top Five Revenue-Contributing Companies

It’s much easier to hold this information in mind and thus process the underlying data more easily.

Another interesting thing to note is that hue of color is something our brains process well, but not in the pre-attentive phase. Thus, heat maps and geographic maps are great for displaying relationships between data, but won’t be as instantly understandable as a bar chart. Again, stick with the right chart for your purpose.

Incorporate these ideas into your next presentation or into your everyday visual analysis and ensure your brain (and those you’re presenting to) is processing information as quickly as possible. By making your analysis more digestible, you’ll also make it more memorable and thus more successful in inciting improvement in your organization.

Need a way to represent your data visually and in a brain-approved way? Give DataHero a try for free.

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By Kelli Simpson

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