Quickly and accurately assessing a large amount of data is difficult and can be quite critical to your business. How the data is presented can hide or reveal different interpretations of the data.
Each of us visually process data differently and this varies with context and exposure. For instance, some people prefer graphs to tables of data, and later, as they get more exposure to the data, they many prefer tabular values with specific statistics to assist in locating trends and anomalies.
Our journey into data presentation began in 1997, while preparing for the Queensland Interim Market. We developed our first market screen primarily as advertising within the company to demonstrate that our small trading team existed for a real reason.
As the market had not yet begun, data was minimal. Our initial display only plotted demand. Until that time, a demand figure of 6,100 MW meant nothing to me. With a graph showing variations over the day, and then seeing daily variations over the week, we start to learn what is the "norm". I started to recognise that humans are amazing at pattern recognition, but not always reliable at inference.
As the start of the market grew near, we had some (test) price data to show. My first attempts at graphing price ended up looking too similar to the demand graph, albeit with a different shape. It just wasn’t interesting. So we made a display with numeric values showing the current price. That is what made me realise that some data needs to be numeric, and some graphical, and some need to be in both forms.
Over time we built more and more displays continually looking for better ways to convey the meaning of the information. We discovered our displays had social implications within the organisation. They made our trading room a show piece for management hosting high level meetings. We found that different people need to process the information in different ways that suit their style, that information overload is easily achieved, yet few will acknowledge they are confused. And importantly, we learned that people are creatures of habit - they learn patterns, and they learn to associate meanings to those patterns.
We are continually learning and discovering more about data presentation so we can ensure that the right message is conveyed quickly and accurately. Use of colour, movement, size, and shape are some of the tools used to convey meaning.