What “Brain Rules” teaches us about Business Analytics

The other day I took some time to review a few chapters of John Medina’s excellent book ‘Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School‘. It is a great read. There are a lot of interesting stories and insights that apply to various different aspects of our lives. One chapter in particular is quite relevant for Business Analytics: Rule #10 – Vision trumps all other senses.

THE POWER OF VISION

Dashboard DesignAccording to Medina, our brains devote over half of their resources to vision. The nerves between our eyes and our brains are much more powerful than those of our other senses. As a result, pictures allow us to absorb information much quicker and the information also tends to be stickier in our brains. Medina says:”Put simply, the more visual the input becomes, the more likely it is to be recognized – and recalled”.

THE PROBLEM WITH TEXT

Text on the other hand is very inefficient. It takes us longer to recognize information and we are likely to retain less of it. Medina states that each letter is technically a separate picture. When we see words we see tons of little images and our brains have a harder time to process the information. George Bernhard Shaw once said “Words are only postage stamps delivering the object for you to unwrap.”

THE LESSON FOR BUSINESS ANALYTICS

Brain Rules

A picture says more than a thousand words

Most of this is common sense, but many of us still choose to ignore these facts. We create long reports with hundreds of columns and numbers. We spend hours analyzing these numbers. And we have a hard time recognizing the important patterns. If we want to follow Medina’s advice, we should visualize our data, instead. This not only speeds up our ability to recognize patterns and dependencies, but it should also help us with retaining the information. The old saying goes “A picture says more than a thousand words”, right?

AN EXPERIMENT

Dashboarding guru Stephen Few created a nice little experiment that shows how true and important this insight is. Take a look at the simple report below. It shows revenue numbers for two regions. Spend about 30 seconds to study the table. Then look away ask yourself what you saw.

What do you see here?

Most people are only able to recall three to four different things from the table. The bigger picture usually remains hidden for a while. Now, take a look at the chart below. This is the same data. What do you see now?

Same information...

Notice the difference? The chart is a lot easier to read and chances are that you are able to retain a lot more information.

THE SIMPLE LESSON

John Medina’s advice can be extremely valuable for all of us. We should strive to move away from pure number and text based reports. Instead we should visualize as much data as possible. But that requires us to spend some time to learn more about charting techniques. There are a lot of different options and not all of them are appropriate for any given set of data. You can find a bunch of valuable tips on this blog to get started. Also, utilize the appropriate Business Analytics platform. Cognos 10 offers over 160 differrent chart types, for example.

So, toss those tables and go visual. Inspect your current repository of reports and think about how you can improve in this area.

Listen to John Medina:

Professionals everywhere need to know about the incredible inefficiency of text-based information and the incredible effect of images.”

 

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