Are Infographics Right for Qualitative Insights?

BI-BlogInfographics are not doing qualitative research any favors.

Good infographics clarify and condense complex information into more easily understandable and digestible visuals—an absolute plus in a culture that wants to utilize big data, but has a short attention span. It’s little wonder why they have become so popular, and why our clients are now asking for them.

Here’s an example of a good infographic by John Nelson, in which each line represents the path and intensity of a tornado tracked in the last 56 years by the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Tornado Tracks Infographic2

The data is accurate and current, the story is compelling, and the design is appealing and clear.

However, infographics are not appropriate for all types of information. Some are being made to represent material which would be better suited for a simple list or chart. Others are being made to represent qualitative insights, like the one below:

The Gender Divide Infographic2

[Source: Motivation Factor and the Boston Research Group, 2012]

It seems a little weak. But why?

Rather than focusing on “black and white” data, qualitative research wades through the complexities, observing and accounting for the “gray” areas that quantitative research cannot address, such as the “whys” of human behavior. That is not to say that the insights are more complex—in fact, despite rigorous research methods based on the theories of social science, good qualitative insights seem simple, like something you have known all along but never realized.

Qualitative insights are supported by evidence that often consists of quotes, photos, videos, and notes. For example, in an ethnographic study with spinal cord injury patients, we found that patients are often in denial about their loss of function. We demonstrated this through quotes from patients saying they have accepted it, juxtaposed with photos showing patients doing things that indicated otherwise, such as refusing to build a ramp to their front door.

Despite the fact that research insights are stronger when shown with their supporting evidence, qualitative data is not easily condensed into a format appropriate for an infographic, and unfortunately is often excluded, as in the infographic above.

When qualitative insights are stripped of their rich supporting evidence, they lose a lot of their nuance and context—often bringing the validity of the insights into question. This is the last thing that qualitative research needs, since there is already a cultural bias that quantitative data is more reliable.

So, should qualitative research jump onto the infographics bandwagon? Probably not.

That’s not to say that qualitative research can’t learn something from infographics. Most people are visual learners, and too often qualitative research reports are text-heavy—our clients get bogged down trying to take it all in. We need to lighten it up, show more and tell less—craft a story from our findings that draws them in and rely on carefully chosen examples to fill in the nuances and context, rather than more text. We also need to pay attention to the aesthetics—good insights are easily lost in ugly or confusing formatting.

If we do these things, then we may just get to a point where clients do not feel the need to ask for infographics, because the research will not only be accurate and current, as it has always been, but it will be compelling, appealing, and clear, as well.

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