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.

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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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  • rate this

    Comment number 111.

    If a picture paints a thousand words.........

  • rate this

    Comment number 110.

    There is probably no more information in your inbox each day than there is in the newspaper you read on the train to work in the morning, and there's no problem skipping stuff that you're not interested in the paper - you just turn the page.

    So, open your inbox, skip the rubbish and get on with your day.

    Computers == data overload? Piffle.

    Or turn off the tv/radio/kids and ignore.

  • rate this

    Comment number 109.

    Clearly we don't need to remember 'every' piece of data. What is important is what the data is trying to tell you - this kind of summary is what human beings are good at dealing with. This can often be displayed graphically in the form of a chart.

    This isn't rocket science - it amazes me what passes for research these days.

  • rate this

    Comment number 108.

    Don,t the experts know that brain freeze is something that occurs when you have a cold drink or an ice lolly. So my kids tell me.

  • rate this

    Comment number 107.

    What is new here? Human beings first culture was picture one so brains of some people havent developed since then as they cant digest information written as digits or letters at the same efficiency as they do with pictured ones.
    Simply people don;t develop, but work and consume and it recreases their brains.

  • rate this

    Comment number 106.

    Here's an idea, all those who think being constantly plugged into a little plastic box is somehow 'cool', 'trendy' or an absolute necessity, switch the thing off for a minute, stop and look around, yep, everyone else are all plugged in.....see how stupid they look.....

  • rate this

    Comment number 105.

    The problem here is Companies overloading their Staff with ridiculous demands which often go beyond a person's capabilities to effectively and efficiently deal with their workloads, often under time-pressure. Seldomly do we admit to this because 'failure' is frowned upon and will ultimately loose you your job by being forced out, leaving due to stress or leaving because you dislike your job.

  • rate this

    Comment number 104.

    Difficult problems will be difficult regardless of how much visualisation software you utilise. All this does is excuse gambling on answers by the use of pretty charts. I fail to see how a difficult problem can be made simpler by using non-thinking visual processes except by not thinking.

  • rate this

    Comment number 103.

    Do we all really need to assimilate so much data? Just because it's available doesn't mean we HAVE to read it, use it and store it. There is skill in selecting precisely what data is needed to solve a problem, using the relevant data only and then moving on. Understanding how to find the correct data quickly is much more useful than processing masses of data just in case.

  • rate this

    Comment number 102.

    I can read an ordinary O&S map easily, but many people cannot make sense of them. I presume that the same is true of Mind Maps, some will get them, some won't.
    Information Is Beautiful does present some data in fantastic ways, but it often takes a while to work out what it actually means.
    And, as others have said, a lot of the information we have to process is driven by a**e-covering, not need.

  • rate this

    Comment number 101.

    When ever I see or hear a spokesman for our useless government I visualise a Telly Tubby and realise that it's OK because really they are in La La Land.
    Sadly as yet I can't get these particular Telly Tubbies to go Bye Bye!

  • rate this

    Comment number 100.

    So let me get this right… instead of spending eight hours work trying to assimilate loads of data, I can do it far more efficiently with a visual representation. This will save me time. I bet that time will be filled by more emails being sent with more visual representations. It won’t make my life any better – just allow me to do more work than I current am

    Ho hum, I need a holiday

  • rate this

    Comment number 99.

    Those who find themselves submerging beneath countless emails need to discipline themselves and, before opening them, run down the InBox and delete all those from people they've never heard of, those with no subject stated, and those that are jokey.

    Once that's done, there's usually only one or two emails worth bothering with.

  • rate this

    Comment number 98.

    "I've been interviewing a lot of senior business people 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"

    I know who you spoke boss!

  • rate this

    Comment number 97.

    Solution is simple: just do one thing at a time. You need data; if you have done your research prior to your need, you will have found one, maybe two, sources that you know are reliable: just use them; remain focussed.
    As for graphics vs. text, the main reason graphics have become popular is that the vast majority of people have an appalling command of the English Language, its grammar & syntax.

  • rate this

    Comment number 96.

    Nothing new about perceived work overload however it is manifested. The key to managing your workload is to know what you want to do, prioritise your tasks and stand by your decisions.

  • rate this

    Comment number 95.

    The 21st century workplace sounds a dreadful place!

  • rate this

    Comment number 94.

    You still have to lear and store the information, though a good way to rpmpt rememberance is by the use of image association and techniques such as number chunking and rhythm also help.

  • Comment number 93.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 92.

    None of this is new.

    When I was a lad we had things call flow charts, then it was spider diagrams and now mind maps. It’s just the same thing we have been doing for 30+ years but with another name and prettier graphics.


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