On lies, infographics, and unverified numbers

by Urs E. Gattiker on 2011/10/23 · 32 comments 13,779 views

in a dos and don'ts,d business ethics,f standards - client focus, customer exp.,white papers research

Update 2012-01-29: latest about infographics see also: Karen Dietz – storied infographics: why do they fail?
From September 23, 2010 to September 23, 2011, 89 percent of infographic mentions were in English and 91 percent of online mentions occurred on microblogs.

Unfortunately, infographics are often judged by their beauty, not quality. Sometimes, instead of following the more effective KISS (keep it simple stupid) principle, a good idea is made into a convoluted waste of ink.

Article source – On lies, infographics, and unverified numbers 

German version of this article you can find here: Lügen, Infographics und nicht verifizierte Daten

Statistics are like cosmetic surgery, the final result is great, but what the procedure concealed is key. Before I explain what this means for your work, sign up with your email and join our over 5,000 readers:

High data-ink ratio – too high

I recently found a tweet with a great headline, 10 amazing e-commerce infographics. Let me explain why, based on the graphic below, the contents left something to be desired.
The proportions used in this graphic - 5 versus 14 percent, or 3 versus 9 percent - are incorrect.
First, circles are difficult for people to grasp, because most are unable to gauge the differences. When compared to 9 and 14 percent, 3 and 5 percent are smaller than they should be, and three 5 percent circles will not even fill the blue 14 percent circle under West.

Using a format that makes it hard for viewers to get the message is one thing, but making the final product inaccurate simply misinforms your audience, doing both you and your audience a disservice when people wonder, can I trust the results when you fudged the data?

Second, the idea that men think about sex every 7 seconds, like the claim that we only use 10 percent of our brains, is often repeated but rarely sourced. Worse, the number does not bear up under scrutiny of the original data, such as for the above infographic:

Now things get really interesting
Global Trends in Online Shopping - A Nielsen Global Consumer Report - Q1 2010: What percentage is your online shopping spending of total monthly spending? See page 3.After a ten-minute search, we have arrived at the original data source, a Nielsen report. Its graphic on page 3 was subsequently used by Richard Scott Design to produce an infographic.

The above circles suggest that 51 percent of West survey respondents spend less than 5 percent of their monthly income online. Based on the chart, adding EU – Europe (55), LA – Latin America (44), and NA – North America (54) gives us a total of 153, divided by 3 to arrive at 51 percent. So the West includes Chavez’ Venezuela and Castro’s Cuba?

As well as failing to provide a URL to the original source, it seems the infographic misrepresents the Nielsen study’s data.

Nielsen could learn a few things too: a classically simple, colored bar graph would better deliver the information than the current graphic. If you prefer, a table listing the ranges on the left and regions across the top from left to right would also work nicely.

Finally, even the original data source may lead a reader to question some things. For instance, how accurate were respondents in representing their online shopping habits? Does the respondent’s income level (e.g., student) affect responses? Unfortunately, Nielsen’s report does not say.

Cut to the chase
Nielsen - collecting data on Facebook (October 2011). Beyond clicks and impressions: Examining the relationship between online advertising and brand - page 6.
This infographic (I call them graphics) clearly and succinctly tells us how Nielsen collected data using Facebook for another study.

Nielsen - nice try, but even fancy words cannot change the fact that these data are biased (October 2011). Beyond clicks and impressions: Examining the relationship between online advertising and brand - page 6.Nearby, the report explains their methodology (see right). Put bluntly, authors admit that while they have reduced possible biases, their data are still not representative of the US population. Of course, the busy professional and/or CEO is unlikely to volunteer for doing an online Facebook survey, are they?

So, are these data useless? Surely not, but all we can say is that they give us a feel for Facebook users. But we also know that sex, lies and statistics all help sell – anything. Accordingly, Nielsen chooses to generalize from these data in its press release.

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Bottom line – take-aways

1. Do not misrepresent data: Sometimes, designers use visualization to exaggerate an effect, which means data get misrepresented… Like stories of men thinking about sex every 7 seconds. This number gets people’s attention, but it does not withstand any scrutiny.

2. Do not use infographics unless they add value: For instance, taking a graph from one study to make another infographic is justified only if it helps further explain the issues investigated. If this does not help you and I to better understand things, why confuse matters?

3. Be ethical and tell readers where data come from: Social media monitoring reports must include information that allows readers to understand where data come from and what methodology was used (e.g., self-selected sample of online survey respondents). Limitations, such as data that is non-representative of the population must be clearly spelled out.

4. Check and re-check the original source: Next time, carefully check the information before re-tweeting it and give the originator credit where credit is due. What are considered marvelous infographics are those that try measuring online behavior in square feet.

Tip: Search for more information regarding graphics and infographics on ComMetrics

Of course, you can ignore the above four suggestions, but you do so at your own peril (as Twitter Only Converts A Small Percentage Of Users Into Shoppers, But They Spend shows). Check the facts and you learn that 1 million visitors nets you one buyer who spends $24 more than those arriving via search – Google.

Do you have an example of a great graphic or infographic?
Please provide a link in your comment below!

I look forward to your comments.

TL:DR
@ComMetrics says: 4 ways to check:  Can we trust this infographic? | Tweet This

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  • Elwira Nowakowska

    I believe this is a problem for strategists.

    I find many really great presentations but always I ask myself about these numbers… So, to me the most important is the source of information, can I trust it?

    • http://commetrics.com/articles/2011-trends-get-better-roi-with-facebook-twitter-and-youtube/ Urs E. Gattiker

      @Elwi_Nowakowska. Thanks so much for taking the time and stopping by again on our blog.  It has been a while since you left a comment.  I always look forward reading yours.

      Absolutely, the source of the information is the most critical thing because it affects what type of numbers have been collected using which technology.
      Unfortunately, many people do not take the effort to first check where the data or information came from that was used for the graphic or infographic. Because if the methodology used is already questionable, why worry about the infographic. The data used to make up the graphic will not be of high quality….

      However, even if you can trust the numbers there is still the question about the quality of the work done to put together the infographic. Sometimes these people stretch things a bit to make things more obvious or to get people’s attention. While I understand such efforts they may, nevertheless, distort these data.  Something we should not accept.

      Unless things improve markedly it could just be that infographics are another fad… when, instead, we should continue using them.  Great infographics with a wonderful story line can make complex matters easier to understand for an audience that might not be specialised in the subject area….

      Elwira, thanks for sharing your thoughts.

      • Elwira Nowakowska

        Urs, I don’t like this what you did!
        I didn’t say like that.I’m a strategist. One of the best.

        • http://commetrics.com/articles/2011-trends-get-better-roi-with-facebook-twitter-and-youtube/ Urs E. Gattiker

          Sorry, the editor made a change because she thought it was confusing.  I apologise and changed it back as you did it originally.  

          This was surely not on purpose. I apologise

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  • Elwira Nowakowska

    Now I can see the oryginal text. And it goes:

    ‘It’s a problem for strategists. I find many really great presentations but always I ask myself about these numbers… So, to me the most important is the source of information.”That’s the correct version. 
    And I can repeat that the source of information is the most important to me (I mean primarily: the methodology, the know- how , and the technology we also can’t ignore).

    • http://commetrics.com/articles/2011-trends-get-better-roi-with-facebook-twitter-and-youtube/ Urs E. Gattiker

      Thank you Elwira for clarifying this issue, that is helpful. Of course, I agree unless the methodology used for collecting these data is critical.  Most often this is already the first serious problem and in part due to limited resources.

      And often, those that design an infographic fail to see the problem and may exacerbate these issues when visualising these things.

      @a62ff51d2cefd29cf3e0d8dd6e13fe92:disqus thanks for sharing.

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  • http://twitter.com/devseo/status/135763117798993920 Alex Hall

    On lies, infographics, and unverified numbers – http://t.co/Vq7wLiFY

  • http://twitter.com/alphaselene/status/141318080436502530 Alpha

    RT @ComMetrics: On lies, infographics, and unverified numbers #ComMetrics http://t.co/epEwKb58

  • Pingback: Info-Graphics

  • http://twitter.com/jenarrow/status/141483766324535296 jenarrow

    On lies, infographics, and unverified numbers: http://t.co/rQE5apsw

  • http://twitter.com/datacurate/status/141521970461290496 DataCurate

    Found in OCLC's "Above the Fold" RT @ComMetrics: On lies, infographics, and unverified numbers #ComMetrics http://t.co/ByZkro9P

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