Information Design

I’m undecided on information design. For a long time, I’ve been a big fan of Edward Tufte: his wordy-but-worthy book, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, is a classic of non-fiction (“Best 100 books of the 20th century.” - Amazon), and is self-exemplifying to a fault: the typography is beautiful, the illustrations rich and detailed. It’s also a classic treatise on how to visually abuse statistics. His other publications, whilst they cover some of the same topics, aren’t quite so easy to follow, although the short essay The Cognitive Style of Powerpoint is worth a read if you’re a Powerpoint hater like me (also see Peter Norvig’s Gettysburg Address in Powerpoint).

But Tufte seems only to be liked by elitists (a cynical and slightly cruel view of his work might say that it involves making graphics more complicated). Another hero of mine, Seth Godin, says: Edward and I disagree. He thinks people are a lot smarter than I do. I suspect what Seth is alluding to is the density of data. Tufte loves data that’s dense and rich, and when I’m feeling intelligent, I do too (I love the huge map of London on my wall; I dislike Harry Beck’s classic map of the London Underground for the same reason: why move the stations around to fit a neat pattern? You just lose their position for no good reason: try something like this instead). However, Seth’s approach does seem to be more realistic. Sometimes stuff just does need to be simple: you can’t always have a rich graph with 3 axes and 10,000 data points being a practical solution to a data illustration problem.

Most data presentation isn’t like either of these: it is just bad. Information design isn’t a field that many folks are aware of, but it is important (making plans to invade Iraq by Powerpoint is … well … just inappropriate. It’s hard to know what else to say). It’s particularly important as the world upgrades to Web 2.0, as a large part of the scope for improvement is in information design and presentation. It’s also simply pleasant to see data presented well. I just wish I could decide what the best approach is.

Chest Pain

Passing along Chelsea Embankment yesterday, I noticed that the British Heart Foundation is running a series of adverts designed to encourage people with chest pain to call 999. Sounds eminently sensible as a first step. However, Robert Fischell, presenting at TED 2005, stated that 75% of patients arriving at Emergency Rooms (Casualty in Brit-speak) with chest pain aren’t suffering from a heart attack: and thus aren’t taken very seriously - i.e., they are triaged below other patients (Fischell was presenting on an early warning device that provides more certain diagnoses). The BHF says on their website: ‘If you think you are having a heart attack, dial 999 immediately’. But almost no-one will know whether they are having a heart attack: they will merely feel the symptom of a possible one. Obviously trying to educate people in health matters is important. But isn’t it only sensible that we be given a bit of statistical context? I’d like to see the BHF be a little more responsible and a little less alarmist. I want to be able to weigh up my health risks sensibly to make good life-style choices: this kind of education doesn’t help.

Sexual Synchronicity Economics

I’ve written about synchronicity vs. asynchronicity before, but I wanted to revisit the subject because it seems to be so key to modern services; as more and more communication mechanisms evolve out of available technology and entrepreneurs’ imagination, understanding customer’s usage patterns will be important when developing businesses around them. An excellent article by Gregor Hohpe, Starbucks Does Not Use Two-Phase Commit (included in Joel Spolsky’s Best Software Writing Vol. 1), is an examination of why understanding computer science concepts such as 2PC (and, I would argue, synchronicity) is important when engaging in business process engineering. There’s a large overlap between business and software engineering here, and this is why IBM sells products like WebSphere Process Server together with business consultants to help customers implement them. There are a number of other essays in Spolsky’s excellent book which also discuss related subjects.

Clay Shirky, in his essay A Group is Its Own Worst Enemy (also included in the same volume; the online copy is edited slightly differently from the printed one), notes how online (synchronous) discussions frequently descend into talk about sex - and that sexual banter is much more common in synchronous communication than asynchronous (how often have you flirted with someone over the phone compared to email? - please, no anecdotes in the comments section). I’m not a psychologist, but I assume that this has something to do with it being hard to retain the thrill of adult banter over the course of a (potentially lengthy) asynchronous discussion. The same arguments probably apply in a less dramatic fashion to non-sexual communication.

There’s a related observation to be made about the perceived economics of people’s time. In general, most folks implicitly value synchronous time as higher than asynchronous - if I ask advice of a mentor over a half-hour coffee, I feel more indebted to him than if he spends half an hour hour answering my email. I suspect the reasons are a combination of my having accurate information (I know exactly how long he spent drinking the coffee), the start-up and tear-down time (he actually took 5 minutes to get to the coffee shop), and knowing that I have his undivided attention (he wasn’t multi-tasking). Nevertheless, we still continue to rate synchronous time more highly than its opportunity costs compared to asynchronous time.

To relate the two assertions, wouldn’t you rather spend half an hour in person with your spouse / significant other / other politically correct phrase than an hour writing and exchanging emails with them? Synchronous communication has a strange attraction than its poor cousin doesn’t - despite all of asynchronicity’s time-shifting advantages. This is going to be a big challenge for a multi-time-zone world.


I’ve noticed that my blog’s been splogged - unsurprisingly, using one of my film reviews that contains some ‘adult’ words (see here for the NSFW copycat). Does this mean I’ve made the blogging bigtime? I’m still only at Technorati rank 147,804 - although (in a not-at-all-sore-loser fashion) I feel the same about Technorati as Richard does about Sun - what exactly is the point?

Spiegel vs. BBC

Fascinating. This 2-day old article regarding a German plane bomb plot made the front page of the Der Spiegel website, but never came anywhere near the front page of the BBC one (this eventually made an appearance, hidden away). Perhaps British folks are expected not to care about German travellers? Maybe alleged terrorist threats are now that commonplace? Or is the BBC just not quite as capable as it many believe it to be? Our ‘trusted’ news source slips past day by day without asking the most basic of questions in most situations (mostly, ‘show me the evidence’). It’s immoral that I would face a £1000 fine for having a box of electronics and refusing to pay for this (I don’t own a TV).

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