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How a picture can be worth less than a hundred words

Wednesday, February 17, 2010
posted by Douglas Keene

We are big fans of visual graphics. They condense complex ideas into digestible images. They help the layperson understand technical jargon in ways that make sense to them. Visual graphics help us to see that our fears are not necessarily in sync with the facts (as you see in this visual on the true odds of airborne terror). A good visual gives us  perspective and information that informs us quickly and thoroughly.

And similarly, if we can see a video of a person (even for only 100 milliseconds) we can infer facial expression more accurately than we can in a still photograph. The video gives us context for our interpretation. Given these pieces of information, you might think that a picture or graphic is always better than words to communicate information. And if you think that, you would be wrong. Very wrong.  How could you imagine such a thing?!

A new study reported by Research Digest blog provides an example of when we do better with text than graphics. In the hospital. Those graphs and charts are apparently often misinterpreted by harried and distracted staff! Researchers conclude that if those graphs were replaced or supplemented with short passages of text conveying the same information—fewer mistakes would be made.

It reminds me of a birth trauma case I recently consulted on that involved questions about proper interpretation of fetal monitor strips.  One problem was that there were no strips.  The entire system was digital—you read it on a monitor.  The complication is that in order to see the pattern that has evolved throughout the labor, or through the last hour, you have to page back and back and back… and you can’t flip back and forth as easily.  The image becomes less clear.

In the life and death decisions often made in hospitals, we want our medical professionals to make the most informed and accurate decisions they can. This study would indicate we should make sure medical professionals accurately interpreted graphic information in hospital charts and that their choices for intervention were consistent with those charts.

van der Meulen, M., Logie, R., Freer, Y., Sykes, C., McIntosh, N., & Hunter, J. (2010). When a graph is poorer than 100 words: A comparison of computerised natural language generation, human generated descriptions and graphical displays in neonatal intensive care. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 24 (1), 77-89.

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