The Dumbing Down of America (and Canada)


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Having just returned from an Edward Tufte class, my brain is gushing with questions. Why do we set up our research reports in powerpoint? Why do we put headers and footers and logos and intriguing design elements on every page?

What is a technical report? The intent is that they share specific information, important and meaningful information. By design then, reports should be stuffed with clear detailed charts and solid conclusions supported with and abundance of references. There should be data everywhere. In fact, there should be no logos and footers because the content is taking up every last pixel.

Unfortunately, this is rarely the case. We write our reports by choosing charts that are pretty and available in our software. It’s not that the data demanded that chart, but that we’ve used that chart a bazillion times and are familiar with it. We then proceed to strip out useful data because the chart we chose can’t incorporate it. 3D charts are forced to become 2D charts. Four column tables are sacrificed for two column tables. We then remove further data because the chart is still too complicated and we know our reader is too stupid to get it.

The end result is that even the laziest thinker can get the point. And, it’s now such a simple point that it doesn’t even need to be in a chart. The bonus feature is that we’ve taught our poor reader that if they have to think about a chart, the chart is too difficult for normal people to understand. We have reinforced for them that they don’t have to spend a single precious minute trying to get a more thorough understanding of their business.

What if, instead, we encouraged people to use the skills they already have. The skills that got them through college, through the sports section of the morning paper, through the company’s financial report.

So, who knows a good free charting program?

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  • 9 responses

    1. Nice post. You could try BonaVista’s Microcharts based on Tufte’s sparklines and riffs on the same theme. Worth the money.

    2. The problem is not PowerPoint, despite what Tufte tends to say, it is the conflation of tasks, resulting in what Garr Reynolds called ‘sliduments’.
      Tufte often talks about presenting data in ways that increases the recipient’s ability to process the data. He makes this point very strongly in the case of the Challenger Shuttle Disaster.
      However, we need to think about three distinct situations.
      1) To analyse the data.
      PowerPoint is poor for this. This process is best achieved interactively, using tools that link to the data, even SPSS will do. The recipient needs to be able to ask for alternative views and cuts as part of the process. This process should not happen in a debrief (unless it is a workshop debrief), a debrief is about communicating solutions to problems, not problems.
      2) To present the results.
      PowerPoint can be really useful here (but I would discard the logos, the footers, and most 3D formats). The presentation is what the presenter and what they are saying – it is not the slides. The PowerPoint simply amplifies what the presenter is saying. The PowerPoint without the presenter is useless. This is often the opposite of what Tufte wants from a chart, he wants to be able to analyse the information in the chart, but that is not what a market research debrief is about. A market research debrief is where we give our findings and recommendations to the client.
      3) To document the process.
      The report is (should be) a separate document. Thirty years ago I used to write lots of reports, ten years ago I did not write any reports, now I am writing reports again. A report stands on its own and has value without the researcher being there. The report has the questionnaire, the methodology, the key tables, a description of how it was analysed, along with what was found and what was ruled out.
      One argument I often hear against providing reports is that it takes too long. But I think this is just a lack or practice. With modern word processing tools, cut and paste, exports, etc I am finding it probably adds 3 to 4 hours to the total process. Just look at how quickly Jeffrey Henning blogs!

      ps don’t get me wrong, Tufte is right in general, he is very brilliant at what he does, but he does not really understand market research debriefs, he thinks we are trying to convey the data for discussion, we aren’t, we are conveying answers and advice.

      1. agreed. he is the expert in his field and us in ours. we need to learn from each other and apply what works best to our field. i for one plan to rethink how i do a lot of my work. i know some of it is there just because that’s how it’s always been and not because it’s the best way to do it.

    3. Canada is part of America! (wait, was that ironic? I didn’t get it…)

      1. traditionally, when we say america, we mean USA. North america does include both canada and the USA.

    4. I call it the “twitter effect”. It’s not scientific or anything like that, but I think it has a grave effect on how and with what depth MR is not only reported to clients but also the depth in which clients read the material.

      Imagine your average CEO, she or he is inundated with random messages and pieces of information that they have to make decisions on (even the mafia wars invitations). Trying to get this person to pay attention to every detail of a 20-30 page report based off of n=1500 is impossible at best. The furthest they are going to go is about 5 lines of about 140 characters that pass on the key ideas of the research report that you spent two weeks preparing. Perhaps its not a lack of patience or a lack of effort – but a lack of time.

      1. i think we’ve taken the lack of time thing too far. you seriously can’t make 2 minutes? how do you do your job well?
        i think this is an uphill battle but i’m taking up the cause.🙂

    5. I❤ Tufte, but there's still the idea of generating content that is relevant or actionable for an audience. People don't pay market researchers just to collect and present data they pay them to identify what is important for their business reality, aka – insight. It's not that they don't have to spend a single precious minute trying to get a more thorough understanding of their business, it's that we should have explained it in a way that it only takes a minute to understand.

      I wonder what Tufte thinks about Twitter.

      1. i totally see both points. I think we’ve gradually leaned to far in one direction and need to pull back. so many people just won’t spend a single moment trying to read a chart anymore. lack of patience, lack of effort.

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