where are your eyes drawn?

I am incredibly excited to announce that, as of today, my book storytelling with data: a data visualization guide for business professionals is officially published! I'm thrilled to be able to bring the lessons that I've honed over time through my work and in my workshops to a wider audience.

Speaking of which, today I'd like to talk about a fun test you can use to help assess the effectiveness of your visual designs. I spend a lot of time in my workshops and in my new book discussing preattentive attributes. These are elements like size, color, and position on page that, when used sparingly, can direct your audience's attention to where you want them to pay it when communicating with data (or communicating visually in general).

The test I like to employ when it comes to determining whether preattentive attributes are being used effectively is one I call simply the "where are your eyes drawn?" test. The exercise is easy: you create your visual, then look away from it (or close your eyes) and look back at it, taking note of where your eyes go first. This is likely where your audience's eyes will land as well. This is a great way to see whether you're using your preattentive attributes strategically to draw attention where you want it.

In my workshops lately, I've been doing this test with a number of images and discussing the considerations for communicating with data that we can learn from each. I thought it might be useful to share that exercise here as well.

Take a look through the following pictures. Note for each where your eyes go first (note: I'm not sure how scrolling may effect this - when I do this live, I go from a blank slide to the screen-sized image).

Did your eyes go straight to the red STOP sign? Most people's do. This is for a number of reasons: we learn over time that red means danger and we should pay attention to it, the big, bold, capitalized letters, and the white outline that sets it apart from the background. In data visualization, it is sometimes useful to leverage the negative or serious connotation that red and big bold letters can have.

In the above picture, most people's attention will go to the sun first, because it's so bright against the muted background. If you're like me, though, when you look at the sun, the airplane is tugging at your peripheral vision. When I focus on the airplane, the sun is calling for attention out of the corner of my eye. Be aware of this tension that it can create in your audience when you emphasize multiple things on the same page (or in the same graph).

In the above image, I find that most (though not all) focus first on the "Perennial Sale" sign, probably because of the bold black letters on the bright pink background. Without other visual cues, your audience will typically start at the top left of your page or graph and do zigzagging "z's" across with their eyes. In this case, we do have a visual cue to direct our attention—to the Perennial Sale sign—after which we likely move our attention downward and to the right (continuing on that "z" and due to the arrangement of the signs). Note this means that we totally missed what was happening in the upper left quadrant (and also potentially bottom left and upper right in this case), so be aware of the overall design of your page and graphs to make sure you aren't putting important elements somewhere they might get missed.

When I put up the colorful balloon picture, I am typically either met with total silence or many people calling out different colors at the same time. With so much competing for our attention, we are drawn nowhere and everywhere all at once. Colorful is great for a celebration. Colorful is not a good goal when it comes to data visualization. Rather, color, used sparingly and intentionally, is one of your most strategic goals for drawing your audiences attention. I could go on and on about this. Oh wait, I did recently in this 30-minute webinar on color.

Check out the difference in how your eyes focus between the preceding image and the following one:

When there is only one thing that is very different from all the rest, it's almost impossible not to look at it. That is the power of preattentive attributes used strategically. Leverage these powerful tools to draw your audience's attention to the important parts of your data and the communications that contain them.

For an example incorporating this test when it comes to visualizing data (along with a featured before-and-after from my book), check out my guest post on the Tableau blog.