When Edward Tufte calls something ‘stupid’ it catches your attention. Well, mine certainly as he’s considered a “pioneer in the field of data visualization”.
He recently called out the US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) Patents Dashboard as having “one of the worse interfaces ever designed”. He’s not the only one to critique their new Visualization Center. The Coronade Group’s analysis of the dashboard describes how it “obfuscates, renders obscure, unclear or unintelligible,” the very patent issues contained within the data. They go on to critique its:
- “unsophisticated and almost content free presentation of data” – there is little by way of context or further information in relation to the data
- their “cartoon-like speedometers” with a wide array of colours – these graphical representations of data offer little by way of expectations as to how the data compares versus previous performance or strategic goals. Also, speedometers do not work as an efficient data visualisation mechanism to represent trends, corrolations or patterns within datasets. This substantially reduces their ability to tell a story, or allow the reader form any coherent narrative as to the overall trend within the data. Dispite this they are used almost exclusively to visualise all the patent data.
‘Convenient dashboard format’?
USPTO Director David Kappos described the aim of the Visualization Center as to “give the public access to traditional measures of pendency as well as several new pendency tracking measures. We are also providing other important data covering USPTO patent operations in a convenient dashboard format.”
Upon the release of the dashboard he recognised and predicted some of the criticisms outlined above: “While we recognize that data visualization experts may prefer other formats, the dashboard metaphor conveys information succinctly, and gives us all something to start with. However we appreciate that all metaphors have their limits — for instance the speedometer format is certainly not intended to convey that a higher backlog is better. ”
The databoard tries to do too many things at once, with the result that it’s difficult to analyse the data, and form any coherent narrative as to the issues facing the Patent office. The speedometers ‘shout out’ data, but the lack of any benchmarking means they lack the ability to tell a story. As Edward Tufte says, keeping it simple and less cluttered would achieve more: “No matter how beautiful your interface is, it would be better if there was less of it.”
Telling stories with data
Column Five’s motion graphic below looks at some of the visual techniques used to communicate information effectively to a large audience.
Some of the techniques the video highlights could be used to improve the USPTO dashboard. These include more effective use of colour; size; and orientation, along with the use of different visualisation mechanisms when representing trends or patterns:
A simple colour change makes comprehension almost instant…colour is one of several pre attempted attributes, including size, orientation, flickr, visualisation clues that the human brain processes within 250 milliseconds…
Imagine that we’re not looking for specific numbers, but patterns; we can use
- colour to show corrolations
- size to show quantities or
- orientation to show trends
The film ends with the trueism “Because your message is only as good as your ability to share it.”
I’ve no doubt that the USPTO dashboard will improve based on the feedback it receives from interested stakeholders. Their current dashboard does not protray the messages contained within their data.
Simon Rodger’s Guardian post today on Data visualisations highlights numerous other poor data visualisations around the internet. While there are plenty of bad graphics around, he notes that “in the end the good visualisations will shine through.” The US Patent office has started to provide a “window into our operations that has not been available before”. While it may not shine at the moment, with feedback it can only improve.