Data Communicators – People Who Aren’t Interested and Don’t Care Are Not Your Audience

This week, I am enjoying the pleasure of my friend Alberto Cairo’s company. Alberto traveled to Portland, Oregon to speak for two events and I’m serving as innkeeper and chauffeur while he’s here. Last night an interesting topic arose over dinner. Several interesting topics, actually, but I’d like to share one in particular. Alberto and I both found ourselves bemoaning the assumption of too many data communicators that their audience isn’t interested in the data. This assumption leads to a great deal of poorly designed data displays.

The particular example that prompted our discussion was the assumption that people are unwilling to read brief instructions that explain how to interpret a chart. This assumption leads many data communicators to present data in ways that aren’t particularly informative out of concern that the better form of display would require a bit of instruction. What a travesty!

When we prepare data communications, we should almost always design them for people who are interested in the data. Dumbing the information down or adding entertaining effects that make the data difficult to interpret or comprehend is never justified.

Over the years I have had many debates with people who defend severe compromises in design effectiveness because they believe that their audience must, above and before all, be entertained. There is a place for entertainment. I incorporate a great deal of humor in my classes and lectures. I do so, however, in ways that don’t detract from the learning experience by compromising the content. Humor, used skillfully, can enhance the learning experience. Similarly, data can be displayed in visually engaging ways that enhance the degree to which the data informs, but this requires skill. Merely dressing up the data or adding meaningless and distracting visual effects requires no skill whatsoever, and it results in harm.

Personally, I have never assumed that my audience wasn’t interested in the data that I was presenting to them. I wouldn’t bother presenting data to people who weren’t interested and didn’t care. What would be the point? I match the content of my communications to the needs and interests of the audience. I don’t speak to audiences who lack needs and interests that I’m well-suited to address.

When we present information to people who are interested in it, we can focus on communicating as clearly, accurately, and fully as possible. If you have something to communicate that people care about, you are responsible for doing it well. If your audience isn’t interested in data that you’re communicating, perhaps you have the wrong audience.

Take care,


4 Comments on “Data Communicators – People Who Aren’t Interested and Don’t Care Are Not Your Audience”

By Dale Lehman. October 4th, 2017 at 8:15 am

This post reminds me of the Tufte quote: “Surely there is something to be said for rejecting once and for all the doctrine that data graphics are for the unintelligent and that statistics are boring. These doctrines blame the victims (the audience and the data) rather than the perpetrators.” Most data visualizations appear to do just that – even when there are potentially interesting insights, they are overwhelmed by clip art and attention grabbing graphics. As you say above, there is nothing wrong with grabbing attention – and good instructors, writers, and analysts must get the audience’s attention – but it is the insights that should get the attention, not the medium of display.

By Andrew. October 4th, 2017 at 11:25 am

The worst outcome is when an audience that SHOULD be interested in your data LOSES interest in your data because your visual communicates the data poorly.

By David. October 6th, 2017 at 11:49 am

Sometimes I am amazed by what I can learn from multiple cycles of typing/deleting/re-typing replies to your articles.

I was going to say something about many audiences being rightfully not interested in the data. Perhaps because you are in a forum where sharing your conclusion is called for, but the supporting data is assumed to check out due to the level of organizational trust placed in you. (I am often not taken up on offers to provide supporting evidence…I take it as quite a compliment, though maybe I’m just boring? I hope not).

But, I think that is really addressed in your comment about finding a different audience. If there is an audience that cares about your data, then share it. If there is an audience that doesn’t (whatever the reason may be), then don’t. Nothing you said precludes one or the other. I do think you have more leeway to choose your audiences than most of us…I, for one, will undoubtedly present data to an audience that doesn’t care about it within the next week or so, due to organizational expectations (yeah, I could fight that fight, but we all pick our battles), but I digress…

I was then going to say something about conveying information to folks who really do care, but for whom the immediacy of other things will always preclude spending a few minutes with your data. Front-line nursing managers can be a great example of this. They do really care about that quality initiative the system is working on to improve patient care, but there is almost always a patient crisis, staffing issue, nurse call light, stand-up meeting, or some other thing to attend to. I guess the real answer to this isn’t dumb clip-art graphics, but rather to figure out a way to convey as much as you can within the restrictions of the format. This often leads to dumbed-down up/down, yes/no, go/stop summaries of topics that really deserve some depth and attention. There is only so much attention to go around, even when the audience does care in an absolute sense.

So, I really have nothing to add except to say you and Alberto seem to be spot on. Not a surprising result in the least.

By Chris W. October 11th, 2017 at 3:44 am

Great post. Loved seeing you and Alberto together last week in the same room at OHSU, Steve :-)

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