When you present information to others, it’s important that you don’t confuse or overwhelm them, rendering them unable to make a decision.
But that’s exactly what you’ll end up doing if you present too much information, or you present it in a way that is difficult to understand or interpret.
Common reasons for cognitive overload
- Too much information.
- Irrelevant information.
- Contradictory or inaccurate information.
- Poorly formatted or presented information.
One or more of the first three reasons can result in complex text, large, detailed tables, or charts showing too many series: All of which are likely to be difficult to interpret. And this overload of information can be aggravated by poor formatting and the presence of table or chart junk.
Avoiding cognitive overload
So, what can you do to help your readers avoid cognitive overload?
Well, you can:
- Keep it simple. Provide the minimum amount of information you need to get your message across.
- Make sure it’s relevant. Only include information that supports the message. If it doesn’t help tell the story, leave it out.
- Make it clear. The message needs to be understandable and easy to see. Assuming you’re presenting the most appropriate information, this is where effective formatting and ordering of information works wonders. Also, a title describing the message shown, not just what the data is a great clarifier.
- Provide additional information. Although, strictly speaking, this goes against the idea of simplification, sometimes a reader will feel more comfortable if they know they can refer to greater detail if required. Make sure they know where to find it.
- Let them know what they can do with the information. Is a need for action indicated by the information? If so, let them know what that action is and why they should take it.
Following these tips will help your reader understand the meaning and the messages in your data visualisations: Whether they are presented as text, in a table or as a chart.
Think about these the next time you are preparing information that will be shown to others.