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Is a picture really worth a thousand words?

1 July 2015
Sharon Cohen-Arazi

Tell me if this description sounds familiar: a report so overloaded with data, just trying to read it is confusing, graphs that can be understood or followed; snapshots that take hours or even days to decipher, and lots of scary numbers? These are all a result of overloading one picture with too much data. Not all data is always needed. Sometimes, one cannot always make the most out of the picture (learn lessons and produce insights that will assist in decision-making processes), especially not during the short time we have.

Nowadays, we both benefit and suffer simultaneously from this information overload:

We benefit from it, since we know more and can develop places we haven't even thought of prior to being exposed to this information.

We suffer from it, since lots of disorganized information can generate stress, confusion and even fear, especially when this information contains many numbers. Another factor is time- processing large amounts can take much time, which is a critical resource.

Just like water, information is great, but a flood can cause damage.


So, what can we do? Here are some small tips that can help us succeed big time.

First of all, we must plan in advance the content and presentation so that they support the purpose. Begin by asking: "what do we expect to know/understand/discover/see"?

Less, not more- when planning a report, it is important to filter the presented data- minimize them down to the necessary minimum. Remember that every data which is not especially necessary may overload and cause an information flood which may cause more harm than benefit. You can use questions such as "is this data going to change the decision we make?"; "can this data promote our achieving the report's objective?". After choosing, review once more what is really necessary and what can be omitted.

Simple; refrain from sophistication: choose a graph as simple as possible. Remember that the more sophisticated the graph, the more time it takes to understand it and follow the changes it represents. A graph which can be understood at one glance is ideal.

Gradual presentation- if for some reason the report still contains a confusing amount of data, divide the data into multiple levels in a manner that supports the objective (for example, division by the importance of the decision to be made) and create a gradual presentation. Note: it is important not to create too many levels of data.

Refrain from unnecessary detailing- excessive detailing can lead to more information overload, in turn causing confusion and a general waste of time.

If necessary, you can divide the report/graph into a number of graphs/reports, with each providing an in depth presentation of a different layer/stage. In this case, it is recommended you create a summarizing report in order to present a full picture. Note that such a report should include only summaries, so that it can be understood in one or two glances.

Present the data summarized and concise in order to support the objective.


In conclusion:

One picture is not worth a thousand words if you can't see the forest for the trees. It can be worth more than a thousand words if it contains exactly what it should in the simplest manner.



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