By Thomas Ohnemus, Head of Solution Marketing, SAP Product Lifecycle Management
When my older son was barely two and a half years old, he was able to distinguish between automobile brands. From time to time, he’d ask me what brand a specific car he was looking at was, and I didn’t think much of it; but before I knew it, he could distinguish a Mercedes from a BMW or a Porsche. The entire family was amazed and wondered how he did it. We assumed that at his early age he wouldn’t recognize the different car shapes, from sports car to SUV, but we soon discovered that what he’d done was to carefully memorize the car logos which helped him identify each brand within a second.
On that note, scientists have learned that the brain finds it easier to process information presented as an image rather than as words or numbers. The right side of the brain (also called right hemisphere) recognizes shapes and colors, while the left side of the brain processes information in an analytical and sequential way and is more active when people read text or look at a spreadsheet. Looking through a numerical spreadsheet takes a lot of mental effort, while information presented visually can be grasped within seconds. Displaying information can make a difference by enabling people to understand complex matters quickly, communicate easier, and even find creative solutions.
As featured in the Harvard Business Review, since the days of cave paintings, graphic depiction has always been an integral part of how people think, communicate, and make sense of the world. In the modern world, new information systems are at the heart of all management processes and organizational activities. Even in a world of information surplus, we can draw upon deep human habits on how to visualize information to make sense of a dynamic reality. Another study has revealed that animations were even better than static images for communicating clearly, (Mayer Report, 1989b, Mayer/Gallini,1990; Mayer/Bove, 1996 ).
The amount of information we are exposed to is constantly growing, leading to a new concern of our modern age: Information Overload, a challenge of the 21st century. Computers may be able to handle incessantly growing amounts of data – but how can the human brain cope with it all? One way to simplify the complex could be visualization. Market information may be hard to display, but at least the data are numerical. Words are even more difficult. One way of tackling the challenge depicting them is to count them and present them in clusters, with more common ones shown in a proportionately larger font. Called a “word cloud”, this method is popular across the web. It gives a rough indication of what a body of text is about. If a picture is worth a thousand words, an infographic is worth an awful lot of data points and readers to get an idea of a long text within seconds.
Products as well are becoming more and more complex and customized. As consumers, we love to personalize our cars, our furniture, and our clothing. And of course, if we can visualize them in our minds or even sketch them roughly when we want to communicate our idea better, but we also want to see how the end product will look like before we buy it. To meet the challenge, car manufacturers have already implemented configuration tools on their websites and even Nike sells customized sports shoes. I strongly believe there is definite room for improvement and growth in these customer oriented platforms and that we’ve just begun to tap on the resource and potential of the right hemisphere.
Graphical visualization has already permeated the business world and is increasing in importance. The speed of this development has been amazing in the past years. If you compare the graphical user interfaces of PC´s in the 1980´s with what is available now on the market, the benefits around user-friendliness are obvious and even taken as a ‘norm’.
Using visualized data helps businesses to increase their process speed and productivity
Business data is getting more and more complex. Imagine the amount of data that is stored to represent an entire airplane or a power plant for example. By displaying this complex data in a graphical way, employees in R&D, manufacturing and service can navigate through this huge amount of information quickly, share information more easily around the globe and thus, make decisions faster and efficiently.
How often have you struggled with the assembly instructions to a piece of furniture you’ve enthusiastically purchased, thinking it would be easy to build? The final quality of your product (for example the huge IKEA closet you’re trying to put together) depends heavily on the quality of the graphics provided in the assembly instructions. Grasping visualized data is usually more intuitive than written information. Visual communication helps you make less errors, and helps prevent misunderstandings. In a business environment, sharing information in a visual way, can also reduce staff training time significantly and make sure that there are no misunderstandings between individuals, despite language barriers, for example.