“Sources of Power” in Data Visualization and Decision Making

I have sometimes been amused during my attendance at high-level business meetings in American industry, amused at the discrepancy between the way we are told that important decisions get made and the truth. (Donald A. Norman, Things That Make Us Smart: Defending Human Attributes in the Age of the Machine, 1993, Basic Books, New York)

The logical-rational decision making models that we are taught in college are worthwhile and necessary, but they are rarely used in the course of everyday business. Although there are times when they ought to be used but aren’t, it is appropriate that they are used seldom. One reason for this is that these processes require a great deal of time — something we rarely have. The other reason is that if you have expertise in a domain, you are able to make decisions that are usually just as good, but require little time.

Gary Klein, Chief Scientist at Klein Associates, Inc., has written an informative book about decision making that approaches the topic quite differently from most other books and articles. In the introductory chapter of Sources of Power: How People Make Decisions (MIT Press, 1999) he sets the stage for his treatment of the topic as follows:

During the past twenty-five years, the field of decision making has concentrated on showing the limitations of decision makers — that is, that they are not very rational or competent. Books have been written documenting human limitations and suggesting remedies: training methods to help us think clearly, decision support systems to monitor and guide us, and expert systems that enable computers to make the decisions and avoid altogether the fallible humans.

This book was written to balance the others and takes a different perspective. Here I document human strengths and capabilities that typically have been downplayed or even ignored.

Klein has studied decision making for years and has filled the book with research findings of his own and others, along with story after story of decision making in action.

Despite the fact that we at times and for good reason use “deductive logical thinking, analysis of probabilities, and statistical methods” to inform decisions, Klein reports that in natural settings decisions are rarely analytical, but are usually informed by intuition, mental simulation, metaphor, and storytelling.

The power of intuition enables us to size up a situation quickly. The power of mental simulation lets us imagine how a course of action might be carried out. The power of metaphor lets us draw on our experience by suggesting parallels between the current situation and something else we come across. The power of storytelling helps us consolidate our experiences to make them available in the future, either to ourselves or others.

If you are new to a field, having not yet developed expertise in the domain, decision making must be informed by a relatively slow process of information gathering and evaluation. If you are an expert, however, this research-laden and brain-taxing process is necessary much less often. According to Klein, experts usually make decisions based on what he calls the “Recognition-Primed Decision Model” (RPD). It combines two processes: “the way decision makers size up the situation to recognize which course of action makes sense, and the way they evaluate that course of action by imagining it”. Experts can often look at a situation and quickly recognize it as familiar, knowing intuitively what’s going on and how to respond. When multiple courses of action seem possible, they can take the first from their immediately prioritized list and evaluate its merits by running a quick mental simulation. If problems are discovered during the mental simulation, they proceed to the next possible course of action, until they find one that works, and then without further delay, take action. Are they always right? No, but if they’re experts in the field, they’re right most of the time.

How does this relate to data visualization? People who analyze data, if they are experts in the domain, usually know what’s important and make sense of it based on pattern recognition. They’ve seen it before, or something similar. Nothing presents meaningful patterns that reside in data better than properly chosen and well designed visual representations. More than any other tool, data visualization software can support meaningful pattern recognition for a broad range of people and can enable them to clearly present what they’ve found to others. Good visual analysis software pares information down to its essence in the form of a picture, removing the noise to enable clear focus on the signal. It translates abstract patterns of meaning in the data into images that can be easily perceived by our eyes and discerned by our brains, thereby serving as an external tool of cognition.

Good decisions must be based on clear presentations of data that allow experts to bypass time-consuming and often unnecessary mental gymnastics and software mechanics so they can spend their precious resources assessing the situation and responding while there’s still time. If you don’t have good visual analysis and presentation tools to support this process, you’re wasting valuable time and working partially blind.

Take care,


6 Comments on ““Sources of Power” in Data Visualization and Decision Making”

By Andrew. May 16th, 2007 at 10:05 pm


I enjoyed the discussion above. In delivering reporting solutions for semi-repeatable decisions to many decision makers (potentially hundreds or thousands in my organisation), one constant challenge I have is to be able to model what a good decision making process looks like. This includes representing not only just the right metrics that will assist to answer these questions of what happened, why it happened, what should I do and finally what is likely to then happen, but how to truly understand the underlying context so as to apply the right design principles of how to represent this data.

I have not seen any good methods on how to model decision making processes that go beyond the decision making theory to really understand the typical decision making process such that the data and design methods can best support them. Any thoughts?

By Stephen Few. May 21st, 2007 at 12:18 pm


One suggestion is that you get a copy of this book, “Sources of Power,” by Gary Klein. He dedicates a fair amount of time to modeling the decision-making process, based on studies of real people faced with real situations.

By Larry. June 2nd, 2007 at 2:33 pm

You are about to see two sentences from your blog because I think they are elegant and therefore worth repeating: “More than any other tool, data visualization software can support meaningful pattern recognition for a broad range of people and can enable them to clearly present what they’ve found to others. Good visual analysis software pares information down to its essence in the form of a picture, removing the noise to enable clear focus on the signal. It translates abstract patterns of meaning in the data into images that can be easily perceived by our eyes and discerned by our brains, thereby serving as an external tool of cognition.”
What you are doing is an many ways similar to a large part of what I started out wanting to be able to do, but did not do, and that was to show various pattern changes over time, e.g., in the field of geography, show patterns of deforestation in a compelling manner over time. With respect to geographical information visualization per se, not all that long ago I thought I had found my way into the world of “geospatial dynamics” and could do my “work” through that discipline. Well, conceptually, I HAD found “geospatial dynamics” to a degree, but when I talked to a professor at the University of Oklahoma about it I came away fairly clueless, and when I tried to read a book on same I don’t recall understanding a single paragraph. (Not so good.) So apparently I was looking for results of this geographic discipline, i.e., usable software to create engaging, dynamic, data driven images.
I was formerly employed as an “instructional designer”, which I enjoyed by the way, although there wasn’t much “design” involved, as I managed projects and people far more than I developed lessons – which is what “we” were doing for the Air Force. After being out of the “universe” of instructional design for four years, I am trying to find a way back in, on my terms if possible. You hit the nail precisely on the head in the two sentences above, and the examples of your work are inspiring. I think it would be very interesting to make my way by creating a niche of expertise in the design and development of “external tools of cognition.” I may be full of it, but maybe not. Do you have ANY suggestions?
I am very glad to have found your website. It is excellent.

By Stephen Few. June 3rd, 2007 at 10:10 am


I’m glad you’ve found this site helpful. I share your previous interest in displaying geo-spatially arranged quantitative changes through time is one that I share. Although I haven’t explored this carefully, heatmaps (that is, using color to encode quantitive values, in this case on a geographical map) could be used to represent the existence and densities of forests, and animation could be used the display changes through time due to deforestation. As time progresses, reductions in color intensity could be used to show the reduction of trees. What I’m describing would be somewhat similar to the animated displays of http://www.gapminder.org.

I can recommend two books that might help you to pursue your interest, not just in geographical displays, but in information visualization in general. For geographical displays, Cynthia Brewer of Penn State University does exceptional work. You can learn about it and her book Designing Better Maps at http://www.personal.psu.edu/faculty/c/a/cab38/. For a good survey of work being done in information visualization, I recommend that you get a copy of Information Visualization: Using Vision to Think by Stuart Card, Jock Mackinlay, and Ben Shneiderman. And of course, subscribe to my newsletter to get my monthly articles, and participate in my discussion forum to exchange ideas with others who share your interest.

Be well,


By Tim van Gelder. September 21st, 2007 at 5:59 am

While I agree with your main point about the importance of good data presentation, especially in “RPD”-type decision making, I’d just like to add the caveat that very often such decisions must be made on the basis of “information” or considerations which are not “data” and so are not amenable to presentation in anything like the manner usually discussed here. For example, consider the decision to set up a limited liability company as opposed to, say, a C corporation. (For a good quick overview of relevant considerations, see http://www.bankrate.com/brm/news/biz/biz_ops/20000831.asp)
Here’s the challenge for “information visualization” types – make a visually compelling presentation of the considerations in this type of decision.

By Dale. February 29th, 2008 at 5:14 pm

Very interesting article.

It is my personal belief that decision support systems in general just assist the decision maker in being more comfortable with their own decisions.

Organizations place a ton of money on the way data is presented in the organization, but eventually decisions are made from the gut :-)

“Advanced Data Analysis. Simple.”