Myth of Seven, Plus or Minus 2

Edward Tufte and Power Point

Saw two extraordinary movies. Jane Campion?s Sweetie and Hal Hartley’s Surviving Desire. These are two films that will change your life.

Great article by James Kalbachabout about The Myth of “Seven, Plus or Minus 2” (mentioned by Camworld). Also, How to list your site with search engines, cross-browser compatibility, the history of web browsers, and hiding css from a browser. has some of the best content I’ve seen. It’s nothing more than a group blogger–I’ve tempted to do something similiar. Also here’s a good index to instructional design models .

Music: Yo La Tengo’s Drug Test (from Surviving Desire,) Phillip Glass’s Offerings, Ofra Haza’s Jerusalem of Gold, Orbital’s The Mobius, Angelique Kidjo’s Summertime, Basement Jaxx’s Romeo, Schoolhouse Rock’ s A noun is a person, place or thing, Jimmy Dale Gilmore’s Just a Wave, Not the Water, Sheryl Crow’s Safe and Sound

Last week I attended a great one day seminar in Austin on Presenting Data & Information by Edward Tufte. Tufte has written three books on visual design and in fact attendees received copies of all three books, a great ploy if there ever was one. He’d probably given the same talk dozens of times, so it’s no surprise that it was full of quips and delightful anecdotes. Some thoughts:

Tufte made a very unusual announcement that he would entertain no questions throughout his 6 hour talk (explaining that participants could post on his web forum). His motives are understandable.  With 200 people from different industries in the audience, it would be impossible to address all of the questions adequately. Although it gave him the freedom to present a huge amount of material in a brief amount of time, it also freed him from the need to make his lecture relevant to the audience. Most of his books were about scientific charts and illustrations; his audience wanted to know what he thought about websites and interfaces. The principles he enunciated were clearly relevant to today’s world, but he needed examples from today’s world to illustrate why interface problems occur. . When you attend a seminar on a programming or networking topic, you are interested most in understanding the structure and the architecture. But when a teacher presents a paradigm or a series of principles, you are most interested in how these concepts help you to analyze immediate problems. He accomplished this by giving past examples of failures and successes in envisioning information. But this is not enough. When an audience member mentions a new example, the teacher is put on the spot. People in the audience wonder, “do these principles actually help the presenter to analyze new and unfamiliar problems?” Without the opportunity for Tufte to do this, the audience was left wondering about whether these theories about visual design really serve any practical purpose.

His self-published books are great examples of his own principles and great visual aids to his presentation. What I’ve read so far is subtle, skillful commentary. He gave historical examples of how writers/scientists were able to simplify information they needed to impart and how a publisher’s requirements on layout often hindered a text’s comprehensibility. He gave two unbelievable examples in his book, Visual Display of Quantitative Information. One involved Galileo’s tracking of sunspots over time. The original book showed one illustration per page, making it nearly impossible to discern any trend or movement. The solution: an artist reduced the images and put them all on one page. The second example involved the ill-fated presentation by Challenger engineers to persuade NASA to delay the launch. The engineers presented all sorts of minimally useful information alongside the important data, making it next to impossible for the NASA managers to reach any conclusions. Tufte put all of the data into one chart whose conclusion was crystal clear: O-Ring failures occur more frequently when the temperature becomes cooler.

These are great examples, but he didn’t really address the simplification process that results from any “improved view” of the data. Proper labeling could do wonders, but that may not always explain discrepancies in data collection. The key question is how to balance the need to present complete data sets with the need to highlight the most important parts. (This is a relevant question to me while designing web navigation for the idiotprogrammer website). Readers wants “views” where they can see the most important stuff (i.e. everything) on a single web page or chart. On the other hand, they dislike wading through useless information. For this, the above article on web navigation is certainly relevant.

Interestingly, the second half of the talk (devoted to web sites) was not particularly striking. Tufte presented some of the standard website examples (Amazon, etc.) without exploring the ins and outs of the sophisticated navigation methods the designers used. Several times Tufte recommended presenting information using N-dimensions, but he really hasn’t appreciated the difficulties of navigation and determining when is too much. The excellent , for example, gives multiple navigation methods on individual pages, using levels and perpendiculars to indicate hierarchies and alternate navigational paths.

One other bone I had to pick with his excellent presentation involved Power Point and overhead projectors. He complained that they were low-resolution devices and imparted minimal amounts of information. First, most of the best Power Point slides are jpeg’s imported from other high-resolution applications like Visio. Second, overhead projector transparencies are good (if only because you can create them with the copy machine). Projected images are bigger and often can be pointed at by the presenter. The problem comes when the speaker uses slides or transparencies simply as an outline of his talk. If that’s all the presenter is doing, then a single page of printed paper would be sufficient.







One response to “Myth of Seven, Plus or Minus 2”

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