29 Feb 2012
We're given mounds of data when all we want is the answer to a question: Which car should I buy? What's the best treatment for this illness? Which software will be best for my business? Instead of answers, we get search results, lists, spreadsheets, dashboards and other collections of data that do nothing to help us with the sense-making process. And while more and more data is made available to us, our capacity to hold these ideas in short-term memory has not changed. We need tools to help offload the mental tasks of understanding and identifying relationships. Why? So that our short-term working memory is free to make better, more informed judgments.
Data visualization is a step in the right direction, but these impressive feats of engineering tend to overwhelm most people. And infographics, while great for engaging people emotionally and making sense of a complex topic, are designed for print and not sufficient for large, dynamic datasets. We need something in-between, something engaging and dynamic, some visual representation designed around the content it is meant to serve. Shopping for a point and click camera? Why settle for search results or a data grid? Why not show dozens of options arranged in such a way as to reveal something each camera relative to the other choices? What might this screen look like? Moreover, what will the Web look like as we start to pay attention to the content being served up by these decade old UI patterns?
For this to happen, we need skilled visual designers—those individuals who excel at communicating ideas in powerful ways—who are also excited to work with content that is liquid and unpredictable. This is still a new set of skills, but a set of skills that will be in high demand as we look for new ways to deal with too much information and a shortage of clear answers.