In order for creators to facilitate understanding they should be designing the content for the consumers - for someone else.

The most important thing as a creator is to avoid being your own audience. You know too much about the subject already and you’ll just end up summing up your own understanding.

Using personas is a good way to avoid this. In essence try to think of a typical person who might consume the work - then design with them in mind throughout. Even better, speak to some real users and find out what they want!

Jennifer Daniel gives a very clever and very simple example of this...

The requirement might be for something surface level and simple to suit a consumer who will only want the basics.

"What is the level of captivation?" Will they be interested at all, will they require some persuasion? Do you care if they aren't interested - you just need to get the point across?

Picture of cartoon charactor Bart Simpson sitting on a skateboard

But also consider the setting. Bart is about to go skateboarding here so he has:

  • limited attention-span
  • time pressures
  • a shortage of patience
  • no scope for time to ‘work things out’ for himself so you have to spell it out

Or this might be a more deep thinking and thoughtful consumer who will need more detail.

Picture of cartoon charactor Lisa Simpson carrying a pile of books

Lisa is all set to sit down and study, so there is:

  • scope for more exploration
  • the setting is not as high-pressured or time bound
  • Lisa has a desire to dive into the detail of the subject so there is scope to try different things.

So is it Bart or Lisa you are designing for? It may be that you can layer the information to work for both Bart and Lisa - we’ll come onto that in the Design section.

Getting it wrong

Jonathan Corum, Science graphics editor at the New York Times gives us a great example from the world of science. Think back a few years to Geneva in Switzerland: specifically CERN. There were rumours of a possible discovery, a glimpse of the Higgs Boson. Scientists worked for decades, building multi-billion-dollar machines to search for the missing particle. They gathered and processed vast amounts of data and rumours emerged they’d found something. Scientists gathered together and there was a broadcast on news outlets all across the world. Everyone was gathered in anticipation, waiting to hear the news...

Picture of journalists and scientists waiting for the results of the large hadron collider experiment

1. Think about your target audience

Not everyone will see things the way you do

Subject Knowledge

This brings us to subject knowledge.

What do the audience know and not know?

The baggage that people bring - or don’t bring is really important, like the CERN example, where they assumed we knew what 5sigma meant.

Andy Kirk discusses this chart of Lionel Messi's goals for Barcelona. A well-designed chart in itself BUT it assumes quite a lot of knowledge.

If you are a football fan then you might know:

  • He's a footballer.
  • Scoring over 40 goals a season for six seasons in a row is insanely impressive.
  • Players tend to play fewer games early in their playing career.
  • The dip in 2013/14 was because of injury

Think back to the understanding section from Chapter 1. On the Patrick Banks chart we are left at the reading stage. We can't make much sense of it. We can't interpret it! This is a problem with a lot of data visualisations, like the CERN example.

We need to help people get to the point of understanding

When subject matter experts present information the danger is that they ASSUME that people have the same level of subject knowledge. Even if the team you’re writing for does have some knowledge, there could always be a new member of the team who isn’t up-to-speed yet. Making it easier for that person will make it easier for everyone else too.

2. Don't assume knowledge

Not everyone has the same level of background knowledge. Readers may need you to provide more context and guidance than you initially think.

3. Serve the setting as well as the audience

If you are presenting in person (or via Lync) then different considerations come in to play. If time is pressing or you need to get your message across quickly then don't overwhelm with features and clutter. Have the conviction and discipline to leave things out if you need to.

End of Chapter Two

We now know who - our audience.

But why are we presenting the data?

That's what we'll cover in Chapter 3: Purpose