BI Trends

Visual Content and the Brain

By Chris Valas
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“We are visual creatures. When you doodle an image that captures the essence of an idea, you not only remember it, but you also help other people understand and act on it – which is generally the point of meetings in the first place.” – Tom Wujec

The battle to get your user’s attention rages every day.

We receive over five times the information per year than we did in 1986. We consume 10,500 words of information on average (and an estimated 34 GB of storage) outside of the workplace every day. With this much data, it’s no wonder that most of us suffer from information overload.

Getting your point across

A recent study found human beings now have an attention-span of perhaps eight seconds (The Telegraph UKTime Magazine).  That gives you seven seconds to get your point across before a viewer’s attention moves on.

How can you do that? One answer is in the way the human brain processes information. In one minute, the average person can read about 225 words. But it only takes a tenth of a second for a person to see and understand a visual.

This is not a new phenomenon. It’s one of the oldest phenomena on earth.  By the time the Gutenberg press brought the written word to us all in the 15th century, animals had been seeing and understanding visual images for nearly 300 million years. We process images faster than text because we’ve been doing it for much, much longer.

Visuals also have an impact on understanding. According to Effects of text illustrations: A review of research by W. Howard Levie and Richard Lentz, “In a study of learning aids by the Educational Technology Research and Development Journal, the understanding of information jumped from 70% to 95% with the introduction of images.”

Color can also make a difference in increasing a viewer’s attention span. According to a University of Saskatchewan study, “Participants who viewed a visually embellished chart found it more attractive and more memorable than a plain chart. It was found that viewers had two-thirds of a second attention span with black-and-white images.” In contrast, viewers had a 2+ second attention span with color images.

Here’s how you can use this information to create better dashboards – dashboards that capture the eye and have a bigger impact on your viewers:

  • Make sure your dashboards contain graphics and charts that are simple and to the point
  • Use more visual content that incorporates images which are easy and quick to interpret
  • Stick with color images to increase a viewer’s attention span
  • Locate related items close to each other
  • Use size to make sure the most important items are visually prominent to get the viewer’s attention
  • Make sure you use proper visual cues to draw the user’s attention to the most important parts of the dashboard

These techniques take advantage of the latest findings in human cognition. There are other approaches that help viewers get the most out of their engagement with your work. One of those approaches is to tell a story.

In my next post, we’ll explore how storytelling can be incorporated into dashboards and why stories matter.


Originally published October 7, 2015; updated on August 11th, 2017

About the Author

Chris Valas is the Senior Director of Engineering at Logi Analytics. He has spent over 30 years working in software engineering.