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If you want people to remember your chart, include a dinosaur

Posted by Kevin Hartnett  November 11, 2013 12:00 PM

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There's been a lot written about how to present data clearly, but less about a more basic point: How do you get people to remember that they ever even saw your graphic? Michelle Borkin, a graduate student at Harvard, recently published results of a nifty experiment that measured the memorability of different ways of presenting data. Borkin collected 2,070 data visualizations- bar charts, tables, diagrams, maps, etc.- and used Amazon's Mechanical Turk to test how well people could recall having seen each one. Study participants watched as data visualizations flashed across their computer screens, and they pressed a key every time they saw a visualization they'd seen before. The most memorable visualizations contained "human recognizable objects," were of a distinct type, and were colorful, with a low data-to-ink ratio. The least memorable visualizations were your garden variety bar charts, line graphs, and tables. All of this adds up to at least partial validation of the ongoing infographic craze, but as Borkin notes, memorability and effective data presentation are not the same thing: It's possible, for example, to remember that you once saw a graphic featuring a hemp leaf surrounded by colorful circles, without being able to explain tomorrow why pot smokers are skinny.

Most memorable data visualizations
Data Viz 1.jpg

Least memorable data visualizations
Data Viz 2.jpg

Images courtesy of Michelle Borkin.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.


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