Ideas from the Design of Understanding 2011 Conference

Last Friday I was lucky enough to pick up a last minute ticket for the sold out Design of Understanding Conference (thanks @howells) held at St Bride’s Library in London.

The event mainly dealt with how the design of data and information affects understanding, but the eclectic bill of speakers also touched on things such as the way digital media is transforming museums. I personally found the day extremely useful as all the speakers dealt with design thinking rather than just visual sense. The value and joy of taking time out of work for an event like this is to be inspired by ideas, not just eye candy.

If you weren’t there, here’s my summary of the main ideas and themes….

1)  Ask the Right Questions

The talks by David McCandless and Michael Blastland reminded me of one of the most critical skills for design and business: the ability to ask the right questions. It’s an essential part of being able to grasp a wide range of subjects and problems, as engineers, designers and managers regularly have to do. And have to do quickly. Important questions in the context of data and information visualisation:

a) Always question data and understand how it ‘works’ - Michael’s energetic talk centred on how misleading data can be. The core problem was put succinctly as ‘numbers go up and down’. His reference was deeper than the more familiar reference of ‘lies, damn lies and statistics’. Deeper because numbers change over time, so snap shots, as most infographics are, can be very misleading.  His question was ‘how can we design in uncertainty’. In other words, be honest when we don’t know what data is telling us or that the story today is not the same as it was 5 years ago.  Asking basic probing questions like what is the data showing, what causes it to change (how does it ‘work’), why might it be flawed and/or misleading are an integral part of the process.

b) Challenge the usability and usefulness of an visualisation - David showed how a couple of visualisations had been created. At the heart appeared to be a constant search for simplification and questioning of the clarity of the design.

c) How a visualisation is ‘engineered’ to cope with variancesthis wasn’t directly referenced in any of the talks, but if you are creating visualisations that deal with varying inputs then asking how it will deal with extremes or blanks is important.  I recently fell fowl of this when a great looking visualisation just didn’t work for larger number ranges. One of the designers just said what happens if….oh, we need to rethink this.

2) Trend  – Animated Infographics

Data and information visualisation to date has mainly been a print discipline and therefore static. As mentioned above one of the problems with data and numbers is that they can change over time. Michael referenced two subjects – murder rates in different parts of the UK and School league tables – and showed how these change massively from year to year.  These variances mean a safe area in one year is actually in the dangerous category when viewed over a number of years. A static image is a snapshot and therefore does not show statistical variance, creating a lack of confidence in the result.

The growing necessity to include a time component to improve ‘understanding’ (including when the understanding is ‘we don’t understand’), means Animation is set to be the next big thing with data and information visualisation. A perfect fit with the digitisation of media e.g. newspapers and proliferation of devices like the iPad which open new possibilities for consuming and interacting with information.

3) “Data is a material”

Jack Schulze from Berg used this term in his talk and I love the thinking behind it. Conceptually treating data as a something with physical properties, something that can be moulded and worked with, is a simple and powerful metaphor. It’s aligned with the increasing importance of data, the sheer amount and accessibility of it.

4) ‘The internet of things’ = data

If the combination of software, communication, network and industrial design advances are the engine behind the ‘internet of things’, then data is surely one of the outputs.  Chris Heathcote’s talk entitled “40p Off A Latte” was about the way data is impacting experiences.  As more objects become networked more and more data is generated. As data sets are networked themselves, incredibly powerful information about people’s movements, buying habits and social network become available. This kind of data is already changing retail experiences and the whole notion of what marketing, service and customer engagement means.  That journey is just starting and perhaps we don’t understand what we’re going to do with all the possibilities, hence the tinge of irony in the title of Chris’s talk.  He remarked “that’s a lot of work just to sell a latte”. He’s right, it also suggests a danger of “is that all you’ve done with that tech?”. Let’s hope long term we do more than create a deluge of wireless location based junk alerts.

Several fields of expertise will need to work together to take this emerging area forward. Standout ones for me are experience design and creating a new breed of intelligent business systems which drive all of these experiences.

There are more questions arising from Chris’s talk than I can cover in this post, so the rest for another time.

5) The Power of Context

Fiona Romeo from the National Martime Museum underlined the importance of ‘context’ in creating understanding.  The National Maritime Museum’s most popular exhibit is the uniform Nelson was wearing when he was fatally injured. Normally a costume would be displayed on a mannequin next to other Naval costumes of the period. However, the NMM created an exhibition using a replica of the case Nelson’s uniform was displayed in following his death. This showed things like he wore padded stockings (he didn’t wear shoes on the boat, as one arm meant he couldn’t take them off easily) and where his under garments were cut to get him out of the clothes for surgery.

Fiona also remarked that the way exhibits are designed now needs to take into account that the function of many contemporary objects is not revealed in their form. For instance there’s nothing about an iPad or a laptop’s appearance which explains what you can do with it, in the same way as say a sword’s form tells you something about its function.  This obviously has implications for the display of objects. So the traditional printed paper card is not sufficient. Some objects are also ‘born digital’, for instance ship plans are now jpegs rather than printed plans.

6) Know your audience

For me the most powerful take away from Fiona’s talk was about knowing your audience or customer. Again the point was not made explicitly, it arose from an anecdote. Traditionally museum exhibitions were designed from the perspective of a single visitor, i.e. a singular experience. But a recent realisation is that most people don’t go to museums on their own. It’s a social and group experience. This observation is transforming exhibition design to embed social and group interactions into their design. You’d think that this would be obvious. But apparently not. It illustrated how powerful simple observations can be, and reminded me just how easy it is to miss the most obvious things.

7) “I’m not a designer”…”Err sorry yes you are”.

It was interesting to hear that David didn’t consider himself as a designer. He often works with illustrators and graphic designers to complete a visualisation. This was a theme echoed by pretty much all the speakers. It was almost like design denial. Surely this is limiting the definition of what design is? It’s certainly true that for many clients or the general public design means ‘the pretty’ bit. For me all of these people are absolutely designers. I found it very surprising to hear the speakers in effect perpetuating this narrow definition of design, especially to such a switched on crowd. To coin a cliche, Design is broad church and you need ‘creative generalists’, design thinkers and strategists as much as the specialist icon designers, UX experts and so on.

The role of design and design thinking will expand as technology advances and becomes more intertwined with objects, experiences. Someone has to pull together the various skills within a team involved in creating something whether it’s a museum exhibition or a static infographic. That person is still a type of designer, don’t deny it please!

Eva-Lotta Lamm Sketchnotes:

Eye Blog:

Chris Heathcotes slides –

More Sketchnotes:

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