Jeff on Data Design

Jeff Veen‘s presentation is just as relevant to me now as it was when I took notes back in June. I listened intently since this man’s work history includes setting up the industry leading Adaptive Path and working on the current incarnation of Google Analytics, a triumph of design and function.

Jeff started by describing his childhood in the 1970s and how at the time the world was changing around him. At a young age he came across a pong game encased inside a table at a restaurant. For him, before then media had been a passive experience, suddenly there was interaction. He terms it as society going through a “conceptual progression in how we can communicate”.

He went on to describe how this expectation picked up momentum as data storage became cheaper and computer processing became more powerful. In his view Moore’s Law works across all technologies. The two key aspects vital to this revolution where the tools for participation and the scale of data.

In 1973 the IBM Winchester 3340  was released with a capacity of around 70Mb. On release it cost $100,000. In comparison, Google currently archives 4 – 5TB of data every afternoon. From this we see that the tools have developed massively and so has the scale of data.

Designers must turn this raw data into information. Whether or not this is achieved is a subjective judgement as it relates to perceptions of the audience. Jeff’s example was to communicate monthly rainfall based on the size of a cartoon raindrop. If the audience had been meteorologists, they’d probably have preferred a numeric representation, perhaps in inches or centimetres. So it is the job of the designer to remember to take the design of data from decorative to actionable. Success comes when the designer has managed to “convey promptly to the eye something that would otherwise require mental calculation”.

A great example of this was John Snow’s mashup of Cholera deaths and location (a street map). Just as valid is Charles Joseph Minard’s map of Napoleon’s March to Warsaw. Edward Tufte was another statistician who used chart’s to bring out the story with the crash of the challenger space shuttle. Also of interest is the air and ground traffic visualisations from Britain from Above (although mostly for entertainment purposes). All were designed to get the heart of the story without being untruthful.

Google Analytics was designed to do just this. Jeff’s tactic with this was to shelve any ideas and reassess them two weeks later. His inspiration for the final graph design was a travel montage from the film Indiana Jones. :)

The point is that the audience is all important. In his work with Adaptive Path, he would identify what people want to do, not what people want – an important distinction. They would take transcripts of user interviews and take out sections that sounded like tasks. Charting the mental model with sticky notes helps provide vital communication for designers and managers. To get the product to production, look at all the options and reduce down to only what you need at launch. What we leave out is more important than what we leave in, we must remember to tell the story.

Some further reading: The Ghost Map, Anything by Edward R. Tufte and of course the presentation.

Posted on Wednesday 24 September 2008.

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