Data visualization (or information visualization or infographics) isn’t just a sweet way to display your evaluation findings. It is a critical pathway to helping clients actually remember what you said. Blame the brain.

Visual processing of information is the dominant method among all the senses – it is called the Pictorial Superiority Effect. There are like 10 kajillion sensory receptors in the eye. And this has served us well, evolutionarily. The ability to pick up slight differences in motion, color, and shape have saved us from being dinner for the lurking tiger or waking the snoozing python. While we don’t have to be quite as perceptive these days (unless you’ve recently driven in downtown Chicago), the biological functions are still there. This preattentive functioning works without intentional effort, as our eyes scan the grassy horizon or the latest evaluation report. Evaluators should be making better use of the preattentive function with data visualization. Clients will be much more likely to have their attention caught if the heights of two bars on a graph are different or if an image is included in a page of otherwise gray text.

But once we have caught a client’s preattention with an infographic, we need to help the client use their working memory to process the information. Working memory is like a sieve (how many times have you forgotten what you went into a room looking for?). Evaluators will need to do as much as possible to reduce the cognitive load when trying to guide the processing of our findings. This can be accomplished through clean, clear, undistracting graphics. The graphic should do the mental calculations for the viewer.

Then to encode the information into long-term memory, it needs a bit more of our assistance. By combining the graphic with verbal explanation, more connections are created in the brain, more schemas are activated, and better recall occurs. Verbal communication alone results in about 10% retention after 72 hours. Combining verbal and visual increases the retention rate to 75%. Using graphic visualization to emphasize information speeds the acquisition of that information and reduces opportunity for misinterpretation. These end results are precisely what we want to encourage among clients listening to or reading our evaluation findings. It is another step we evaluators can take responsiblity for in trying to ensure that our findings are used. While comprehension, retention, and recall may not (yet) predict use of our results, it sure is a step in the right direction. And a pretty one, at that.

I’m going to talk more about data visualization and the use of graphic design in evaluation at this year’s American Evaluation Conference. Check me out.

I’m also working to organize a new Topical Interest Group on data visualization and reporting. If you are an AEA member and want to join, contact me or come to the informational meeting at the conference this year on Friday night, 6:05-6:25 PM in the Goliad Room.

In the meantime, here’s what I’ve been reading on this topic:

Brain Rules by John Medina

Visual Language for Designers by Connie Malamed

Design Elements: A Graphic Style Manual by Timothy Samara

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