by Valeh Nazemoff

3 ways to make better decisions when interpreting visual data

Jan 08, 2016
AnalyticsBusiness IntelligenceC-Suite

How many times have your eyes seen one thing, but your mind believed another? 'Sleight of hand' is present when it comes to our interpretation and analysis of data. Understanding how our perception varies of data based on how they are presented through graphs and charts will help us change our analysis and improve the way we make decisions.

Do you remember the first time you witnessed a magician “saw” someone in “half”? What was your reaction? It was probably “that’s impossible, it can’t be!” You then probably explained it away, saying “That must’ve been a trick cabinet” or “There were two assistants as part of that illusion!”

Your eyes saw one thing, and your mind believed another. When what we see doesn’t fit our expectations of reality, our minds then search for a logical explanation.

Your inability to explain wasn’t due to the fact that you weren’t paying enough attention to the trick. Not at all – rather, your attention was being re-directed, thus altering your perception, your way of interpreting what you saw.

“Sleight of hand” is present when it comes to our interpretation and analysis of data. Understanding how our perception varies of data based on how they are presented through graphs and charts will help us change our analysis and improve the way we make decisions.

Understand how your mind works

When encountering cleverly designed visual data, such as engaging infographic reports, we experience a myriad reactions and responses. Visuals are increasingly used to share ideas, content, and information in a bite-sized manner, catering to short attention spans and busy schedules. They are used so frequently that the sheer volume can be overwhelming, potentially leading to flawed decision making. Not only are visuals used in newspapers, commercials and 24 hour news channels to influence audiences, but they’re also more widely used in corporate environments to quickly review, collaborate and make strategic decisions using information, data and applications.

The brain’s perception and cognition of visual origins

So how does the brain process visual representations of data? When you see something, your visual cortex offers up a lightning fast perception of what you just saw. However, the process of interpretation does not stop there. What you saw and – note here – “paid attention to” then travels to the cerebral cortex. This is where the actual cognitive, conscious thinking analysis occurs and is then stored in your memory.

For our purposes, perception is the brain’s starting point to receive, understand, and process sensory information.

We experience (perspective) thus we interpret (perception)

As humans we draw upon our perspective (as formed from prior experiences), when perceiving new data and information. We make predictions of what will / should happen next based on our histories. But, it is crucial to question if the current situation is truly like those of the past? Are you perceiving and interpreting visual info through a clouded lens or a clear one? The more embedded our beliefs, the more difficult it is for us to see anything in a truly different way. Perspective is tough to change, and is consistently reinforced by our perceptions.

I was recently at a concert taking a photo from my smartphone. When viewing the concert with the naked eye, the action seemed much closer. Through the unbiased lens, it appeared further away. Why the difference? My mind wanted me to see the concert the way I interpreted it. That happens to all of us countless times per day.

Challenge yourself to see things the way they really are

So, you see an eye-catching infographic in the local newspaper, meant to influence the reader to believe that widget prices are rising too quickly as demonstrated by a graph on an x vs. y axis. The average reader may not notice that there is a break on the y axis, making an increase look more substantial. But, by focusing on your perception (how you interpret the data) you can improve the solidity of your overall perspective (evaluation of the data). By questioning what you perceive, you can adopt a flexible, fluid, open-minded perspective. Here’s how:

1. Pay attention.  Are your interpretations based on past experiences?

2. Hone in on what those past experiences are. For example, when reading sales documents for a product heralding its many benefits, are you influenced by a general love for the brand? Are you seeing the forest for the trees?

a. This is how to start noticing and recognizing patterns of behavior and become aware of the present. Pay attention to the way you evaluated the information (the perspective) and how you arrived at your conclusion (your perception). Do you really believe the validity of the product benefits, or do you just love the brand?

b. Then, evaluate if the current situation is truly the same as the past. What is different? What are the impacts? Perhaps you realize that your positive association is based on a different product you used in a previous company, and does not have significant bearing on your current decision.

3. Observe your team’s dynamics and interaction with visual data – what are their perspectives and perceptions? It is important to help them understand the difference as well. The key here is to welcome a non-judgmental view in order to be open to new information and make impactful decisions.

Harness visual information for corporate good

Visual images and icons can be a convenient way to communicate and translate processes, alerting and notifying happenings across different users in a company (executive, technical, marketing) and even with an international audience. Similar to textual metadata definition, internal visual representations need to invoke a common definition and interpretation within the organization. When everyone within the company knows what a strategically selected image characterizes, a single infographic can get the message across expeditiously.

Keep in mind that the visual flow is only as effective as the ability of the viewer to interpret the design of the image. There are other factors that need to be defined:

  • Representation of color – it can mean different things to different viewers
  • International and cultural implications – might not be perceived the same as another country (even within the same company)
  • Demographics – different age groups view things differently, technology-wise
  • Roles of users/viewers – an image can convey different perspective to account payable versus IT support

See through sleight of hand

What you believe you see is what cements your perspective. If you don’t challenge yourself to ask how the magician does his illusion, you’ll believe that it was magic and will never learn new tricks. There are many different ways to come to conclusion – there is no one way of interpreting things. This is why you must constantly work to question visuals, no matter how pretty they are. And, when working with a team, be mindful of each other’s perspectives and perceptions and how they affect decisions.

Our perception of reality is what governs the perspective direction of our decisions. Make sure yours is based on the present to define the future and not the past.