Pretty pictures: Can images stop data overload?

Mindlab experiment Brain scan: Research suggests that one way to avoid being overloaded by data is by presenting it visually rather than text or numbers

Sitting at your desk in the middle of the day, yet another email notification pops up in the corner of the screen, covering the figures you're trying to digest in the complicated spreadsheet in front of you.

Technology of Business

Your laptop is open on the desk next to you with another set of figures you need - meanwhile you're frantically tabbing through different documents on the main screen.

You have a meeting in 20 minutes and you suddenly feel as if you're swimming in a sea of impenetrable data, and you're starting to sink.

Welcome to the 21st Century workplace, and "data overload".

Under siege

You're not alone.

Dr Lynda Shaw is a neuroscience and psychology lecturer at Brunel University in the west of London.

"I've been interviewing a lot of senior businesspeople lately, and they're actually hiding... because they're frightened they're going to be asked questions they can't answer, so they're delaying making really quite important decisions," she says.

"When we're inundated with emails, Twitter, Facebook, social media, search engines like Google, it's as if we're expected to know more than we actually do, and we can't retain that level of information, that bombardment.

"When we feel overwhelmed we start to delay making decisions."

Dr Lynda Shaw Dr Lynda Shaw: The visual brain is this incredibly flexible and adaptable design to help us see and remember and make sense of everything around us

Dr Shaw says this is a symptom of the computer age.

"We've really seen this incredible amount of information flooding us constantly. The problem with information overload is really new to the human brain."

She says this ultimately has huge implications for us both personally, and in terms of business - with obvious implications for productivity.

"When we're in a stressful situation, cortisol, the stress hormone rises. One of the jobs of cortisol is to work with the neurotransmitters. So when it is up we experience memory loss, depression, high blood pressure "

And the rate at which we are bombarded with data on a daily basis is increasing exponentially.

According to Cisco's Visual Networking Index, average global IP traffic in 2015 will reach 245 terabytes per second, equivalent to 200m people streaming an HD movie at the same time every day.

Within the next three years, there will be nearly 15bn network connections via devices and nearly 3bn internet users - more than 40% of the world's population.

So short of switching off the PC and going out and doing something more interesting instead, what can we do about it?

Pretty as a picture

One answer may lie with the way data is presented to us.

Data visualisation v text

  • Individuals working with visual mapping techniques used on average 19% less cognitive resources
  • They were 17% more productive and 4.5% better able to recall details than when using the equivalent traditional software
  • Groups working together on a project used on average 10% less cognitive resources
  • They were 8% more productive and recalled 6.5% more data when using visual mapping compared with traditional techniques

In a lab in Sussex a group of people have had their brainwaves scanned while completing a series of tasks, individually and in groups, to see if data visualisation - presenting information visually, in this case a series of mind maps - can help.

The results showed that when tasks were presented visually rather than using traditional text-based software applications, individuals used around 20% less cognitive resources. In other words, their brains were working a lot less hard.

As a result, they performed more efficiently, and could remember more of the information when asked later. Working in groups, they used 10% less mental resources.

The research was carried out by Mindlab International, an independent research company that specialises in neurometrics - the science of measuring patterns of brain activity through EEG, eye tracking and skin conductivity, which tracks emotions.

"The key reason we do the work that we do is that most of our decision making, yours and mine, goes on in the subconscious, or auto pilot or whatever we call it. Our cognitive brain can't actually deal with the bombardment of messages that are streamed to our bodies constantly all the time," says Duncan Smith, Mindlab International's managing director.

Mindlab experiment Individuals and groups had their brainwaves monitored as they completed tasks using visual mapping software compared with traditional applications

The research was commissioned by work management software specialists Mindjet, and used their MindManager software. All participants were familiar with both this and traditional text based word-processing software, email etc.

"We did expect that visual mapping would perform better purely and simply because this is the way the brain is wired up. We don't work as a filling cabinet, we don't work in a linear fashion," says Mr Smith.

"If you present data visually it has much more impact and the brain finds it much easier to process."

MindManager screenshot A simple mind map created with MindManager

San Francisco-based Mindjet specialises in mind maps - diagrams that present ideas, words and any other form of data grouped round a central key theme. The company says 83% of Fortune 100 companies are using its products.

Mindjet's Chris Harman says the research was commissioned following a survey the company did at the end of 2011 which found two-thirds of people felt they were "drowning" in data.

"We thought we know the problem, what difference can we actually make?"

Visually stimulating

Data visualisation is not limited to mind maps - the current vogue for infographics is another way to present information in a non-linear visual fashion.

Data visualisation expert David McCandless's Information is Beautiful website showcases good examples of data design. gives designers a platform to upload and showcase work as well as providing tools to create your own. Google Fusion and d3.js create simple visual representations of data, Quantum GIS and OpenHeatMap use maps and data together. And there are many more.

Tableau Software Tableau Software lets users create data visualisations accessible from a central dashboard - like this graphic tracking oil wells

Phillipa Cardinal is post-production manager at Discovery Europe.

A large part of her job involves consolidating and analysing data. To do this she uses Tableau Software, which lets her create data visualisations accessible from a central dashboard.

"To me it's quite obvious when I'm exploring the data, things just pop out at you that you might not see if it was in a text-based environment," she says.

"Being able to consolidate all these different bits of data onto a dashboard that we use for reporting upwards to our senior management team, you're able to really tell a story with it.

"You want to make sure that the time they spend looking at the data is used effectively."

Start Quote

If we can stop feeling overwhelmed ... we can actually start enjoying this information”

End Quote Dr Lynda Smith

Francois Ajenstat is director of product management at Tableau Software. He says the benefits of data visualisation are obvious.

"The first is it can help you make sense of data - I think that's actually quite fundamental especially as the amount of data that is collected every single day is growing exponentially. I think we're collecting more data in the last year than has ever been created in history.

"How do you make sense of that? It's more than just getting a report, it's about being able to see it, and seeing it with your eyes and the visual element of your brain is actually very, very powerful.

"Seeing a number bars and a line you can infer very quickly what is going on versus if you just look at numbers."

Brain function specialist Dr Lynda Shaw says by using these tools and others to minimise the overload, the growth in data can be a positive thing for all of us.

"The visual brain is this incredibly flexible and adaptable design to help us see and remember and make sense of everything around us."

"If we can stop feeling overwhelmed ... we can actually start enjoying this information, and by enjoying it we might be able to increase our brain capacity because we're using it better. "


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  • Comment number 91.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?

  • rate this

    Comment number 90.

    I find visual representations of information easier to digest and analyse. However the person translating raw data into graphics needs to have some design knowledge in order to choose the appropriate graphical interpretation / format for that data. Ideally two people working together so the important trends in the information become visible, one with in-depth knowledge of the data and a designer.

  • rate this

    Comment number 89.

    Having worked in business for so long, I could have told you this: If you want your coworkers to understand effectively & efficiently - use visual imagery. One good pie chart can accomplish thousands of words. But I could also tell you it is easier to manipulate, make workers see things your way. Data - all data, however presented, is only as good as its integrity & veracity.

  • rate this

    Comment number 88.

    Did they do any tests to see what would happen when the management take advantage of visual tasks using 20% less cognitive resource by increasing the work load by 20%?

  • rate this

    Comment number 87.

    I did not realise that there were so many free/cheap tools to do this. A few of us are going to try Google Fusion and d3 - as a small department we do not have endless resources. I am also very interested in the mapping capabilities of Quantum GIS. I seems sensible to try this before committing money to paid for software we may not use. Am interested to hear if other people have used these?

  • rate this

    Comment number 86.

    TOO MUCH information just slows down the decision process.
    FIX the SIMPLE things first.
    By the time you have waded through all the dross, the situation will have changed anyway and present you with a totally new set of problems.

  • rate this

    Comment number 85.

    Data, aka facts (if accurately compiled) allow us to make rational decisions based on the evidence - however, modern technology allows so much data to be generated & distributed in double quick time that often those sending it out don't filter out the useful from the plain the end of the day it is how we humans use the tools at our disposal that dictates their usefulness....

  • rate this

    Comment number 84.

    The trick to not being overwhelmed is simple: focus on whatever you are doing NOW but switch at intervals, e.g. to check e-mail or Twitter - rather than having them 'on' constantly, you sweep around such things every so often whilst concentrating on the main task that you are engaged in. The flipping gives a microbreak (like reading the BBC website in the middle of writing a job application!).

  • rate this

    Comment number 83.

    What a wonderful INFOMERCIAL!
    I'm sure there's a businessman out there rubbing his hands together with glee.
    This is a giant free advert courtesy of the BBC.

  • rate this

    Comment number 82.

    Brain freeze
    Is data overload paralysing your thought processes?
    Nah,my brain never freez........................................................nice out today innit................................................sorry,what was the question again?

  • rate this

    Comment number 81.

    You just think you do. When you dream you are actually seeing using your visual system. ... When you imagine something while awake, you just think you are seeing it, but are in my opinion not.

    Er unlikely.
    When you dream, your visual cortex will be activated, and when you imagine something, the evidence suggests that it is activated in the same way it would be for actual vision.

  • rate this

    Comment number 80.

    Don't pretend that a simple representation of complex data will solve your business problems - pretty pictures don't cut costs or raise margins. Indeed, they can fool you into simplistic, sweeping solutions which ignore special and localised issues, creating tomorrow's problems.

  • rate this

    Comment number 79.

    It was just last night that I was in a focus group at the 'Idea Store' (Library) in Whitechapel to discuss the Tower Hamlets council website, too much info is as bad as too little, images are better whenever you can use them.
    Isn't that what the icon was made for? Doesn't a picture say a thousand words. They've got me in trouble too mind!

  • rate this

    Comment number 78.

    75. Name number 6
    32. Ady

    agreed, heres to being an under achiever, long may they not find out our secret!

  • rate this

    Comment number 77.

    I'm really surprised that turning swathes of data into simple trend-scaped graphics has interpretive benefits. & you can get stressed when the hundredth interruption arrives; and that performance drops off when overworked. I would never have guessed.
    Was this article copy-pasted from Mindjet's glossies?

  • rate this

    Comment number 76.

    A load of business mumbo-jumbo dressed up as science.

  • rate this

    Comment number 75.

    32. Ady

    ''The key to survival in the office is:

    Don't pass any exams, or pass them incredibly slowly, over decades
    Don't be too eager to please
    Don't be too good at your job

    Once an employer knows you are good at a task you are toast''

    I couldn't agree more, I'm actually quite good at my job but pretend that I'm not, therefore I get away with murder, like spending half the day posting on HYS.

  • rate this

    Comment number 74.

    Its time that people are short of. reading information with time to digest the validity. Too much to read in a short space of time means reading key words and often missing detail- just like a graphic interpretation.

  • rate this

    Comment number 73.

    Anyone remember when you could send a letter & would not expect an answer for a week or two? Now that we have instant messaging we want instant answers - not always getting the right answers. Half the problem is that regardless of how we get the info is finding the time to consider it and its implications.

  • rate this

    Comment number 72.

    Stop a while and visualize something more relaxing, pretend you are somewhere else, I created my 'Blue Mandala' just for that (link)

    Nothing like a bit of self publicity is there?
    if you are going to visualise being somewhere else, why do you need a blue circle?
    I just imagine the scene..not on your screen but.. you know.. in my mind!


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