Insights from dealing with large amounts of data
I’ve been designing and building interfaces for a long time, specifically interfaces for business tools for a number of companies ranging from small to very large. Most of the time these tools are required to manage a large amount of information. Out of the many things I’ve learned doing this work, two insights stand out:
- People struggle with finding content, specifically the piece of data they need in any given moment.
- Seeing the data helps people remember it and where to find it.
That second point sounds obvious, and yet it is tremendously undervalued when assessing the current landscape of interface design. These days, design philosophies are all about being clean, spacious, and modern. I can’t tell you how many times someone commissioning a website says “I want it to look clean and modern” or a stakeholder of a project has said “I want to remove the clutter”. The first question we should ask is “What is the interface for?”
If it’s a website for your business, then yes, clean and spacious is great. It’s purpose is to drive users to buy, contact, subscribe, etc. There’s often a singular purpose the business website aims to achieve and it’s valuable to remove information that gets in the way of this purpose.
However, when the interface is for a tool that manages a lot of data, manages different kinds of data, and/or manages a number of different projects, the approach must be different.
Discovering the value of data density
Here’s what “The da Vinci of Design” says:
“What about confusing clutter? Information overload? Doesn’t data have to be ‘boiled down’ and ‘simplified’? These common questions miss the point, for the quantity of detail is an issue completely separate from the difficulty of reading. Clutter and confusion are failures of design, not attributes of information.” —Edward Tufte
“Above all else show the data.” —Edward Tufte
From his website: Edward Tufte is a statistician and artist, and Professor Emeritus of Political Science, Statistics, and Computer Science at Yale University. He wrote, designed, and self-published 4 classic books on data visualization.
I first discovered ET when he reviewed the design of first iPhone (scroll down to watch the video). ET has spent an immense amount of time thinking about information design and many have benefited from his work, including myself. I took his insights to heart.
The underlying truth behind information design is that if you can’t see it, you don’t know it’s there. There’s a term of art for this concept: information scent. What you can see leaves an imprint in your mind, a trail to follow, and an anchor to help you keep your place on the planes of two-dimensional space.
How white space killed an enterprise app (and why data density matters)
Christie Lenneville tells a real story of designer who was hired to redesign an extensive control panel that served representatives in a call center. This designer implemented all of the clean, spacious, and minimalist design philosophies that are common in consumer apps. Apparent, less important data was placed into deeper layers, the user experience flows made sense, and the entire control panel was made beautiful and pleasant to look at. After a month, the company abandoned the entire redesign because the users hated it. Though the original tool was ugly and took time to learn, it was dense with data, allowing users to access everything they needed quickly. The new design not only required too many clicks to get to relevant data, lots of relevant data visible. The visual anchor cues were gone.
Let me show you small example. Have you every come across an icon or a series of icons and not know what they mean? Below is an example. What does each icon represent? Let me give you a hint: these belong in an email app. Click on the image below to display their labels that were hidden.
Consol is a control panel for all you do
Consol’s workspaces and categories help to break down every piece of data, whether a note, task, bookmark, etc., into two or more distinct categories. Their constant visibility and hierarchy establish mapped impression in your mind of what the data is and how to find it. For example:
“When I get to #work I need to finish the proposal for #Acme Inc.
The proposal is found by clicking #work and #Acme Inc.
“When I get to #home I need to make a #shopping list for the grocery store.
The grocery list is found by clicking #home and #shopping.
“My essay for #econ101 is due Friday.
The link to the Google Doc is found by clicking on #school and #econ101.
Where are the 7 articles I researched for my #company’s #blog post I am writing?
The bookmarks, notes, tasks, etc., are all located in the #companyname workspace and #blogs category.
Most interfaces with similar hierarchies will opt for an accordion-style menu where the categories are placed under the workspace in a tree with expand / collapse buttons. This obscures the trail as it is compacted into a single column. In Consol, the data flows from left to right, beginning with the most general concept (the workspace) and as your eyes move right, the data expands into greater detail, culminating in the actual contents on the page view at the right side.
Seeing your data in context
In addition to your high level categories, all your project’s information is displayed in context. Even though you may be viewing a note, you can see your other notes, tasks, bookmarks, meetings, etc. while viewing a specific workspace and category. Your brain is absorbing contextual data about everything in your project simply with a glance. These elements reinforce an impression of the scope of a project over time. It also allows for instant switching between one piece of content and another. We’ve built Consol so that your data is at at your fingertips.