Attention is like a bouncer at the entrance to our brains. For anything to get inside and make a difference in how we think and act, it first has to win our attention. And I don’t have to tell you (although here I go anyway) that we each have limited attention and lots of things are competing for it. So if you aim to influence others’ thoughts and actions with data, give some consideration to the nature of attention.
What wins people’s attention? 1) Stuff that stands out and 2) Stuff related to our desires or goals. The former wins our “exogenous” attention. The latter wins our “endogenous” attention.
Say you are at a crowded cocktail party. You are going to notice stuff that stands out like loud noises or bright lights. But you will also notice stuff that does not stand out but is of particular interest to you such as that woman standing in far corner whom you were hoping to see. You may also notice if one of your favorite songs is playing softly in the background.
We can make use of this understanding of attention when we visualize data by:
Making the most important aspects stand out. Vary the size, color, and space around text and data points. For example, make the title much larger than the rest of the text or color all of the data points gray except for the ones you want to call attention to.
Pointing to aspects that may interest your intended viewers. Use titles, subtitles, data labels and captions to highlight and explain aspects of the data that may be particularly engaging for your intended audience.
Check out the before-and-after vizes below to see how I’ve applied these techniques to focus my audience’s attention.
See other data tips in this series for more information on how to effectively visualize and make good use of your organization's data.