Word-sized graphics transform the way we work with numbers and data.
Slowing down for evidence
In “The Discovery of Slowness” Sten Nadolny tells the real-life story of the seaman, Sir John Franklin. Due to his extremely slow comprehension and movements, Franklin is initially deemed mentally challenged. Over time, his slowness will prove to be a great gift because he examines each of his experiences with great detail and learns to compensate his slowness through precision. He gains respect through his precise calculations in navigation and is later able to calculate the necessary actions before his fellow peers can. His ability to remain calm in precarious situations will later save both him and his shipmates in several seemingly hopeless situations. Franklin will later go on to achieve fame as a discoverer and as the governor of Tasmania.
The moral of Sten Nadolny’s novel is that we will reach our goals when we invest the time to be observant and meticulous – not when we work fast and superficially. What an important lesson for dealing with numbers!
Sparklines: The trend to slowness for accurate financial management and control
Sparklines are word-sized graphics that illustrate values in their historical context. These miniature charts can be embedded in tables, where they deliver a much greater value than the amount of space they use. Sparklines can also be used to better illustrate text, for example, as Galileo did more than 400 years ago to explain his observations of the planet Saturn.
Sparklines will revolutionize the way people present numbers as well as how they read them. They make it possible to create reports with a significantly higher information density, integrating thousands of values on a single page without sacrificing general readability or comprehension in the process. In fact, this density actually empowers the reader to make countless comparisons, intuitively recognize patterns and fully absorb the facts described in the data.
A single page with sparklines can replace a good hour of intensive analysis without needing to refer to other data, jump to different views or interact with a computer in any other way.
Managers discover the beauty of slowness
Executives, project managers and financial analysts around the world have grasped the sparklines concept to slash monster-sized reports to a fraction of their previous size. The Virginia Department of Health uses sparklines to visualize its AIDS statistics. The CFO at Hansabank in Estonia has replaced PowerPoint-based reporting for a single ledger-sized sheet of paper containing sparklines. Bayer HealthCare uses the word-sized graphics to improve the information density of its executive reporting. A subsidiary of Deutsche Telekom has implemented an information ticker using sparklines to keep its 300 controllers up to date on the latest company information. And that is just the beginning!
The press catches on
Most readers want transparency – whether in business magazines and technical literature or the business and sports sections of daily newspapers. The Huntsville Times integrated sparklines to illustrate the lifetime homerun statistics of Major League Baseball’s greatest sluggers, while the New York Times was able to summarize the outcome of 218 New York Knicks games using a mere 12 inches (30 cm) of column space.
Most newspapers, however, have yet to catch on to sparklines, since they pose new grammatical challenges that further complicate their already hectic editorial deadlines. A line break in the chart, for example, damages the meaning. Making last-minute changes to a sentence containing a sparkline requires skill and practice, which many editors still lack. However, in time and in a more progressed stage of development, this new visualization form will surely prevail.
In comparison, sparklines can be incorporated into tables with ease. Here, the word-sized graphics only need a short explanation to deliver readers a significant amount of information using an insignificant amount of space.
Slow and steady wins the race
Sparklines help us refine the way we observe data. They are a proven cure for recency bias, a very human and probably even evolutionary tendency to judge the last information we receive as the most important. Although this instinct may be beneficial for animals, it can be very misleading for anyone analyzing data. Sparklines, however, give us the necessary foundation to make a thorough observation by illustrating the historical developments in multiple periods of time.
Since sparklines can deliver rich content in such a small space, there is even sufficient room in the shortest of press releases. In fact, wouldn’t it be nice to have the information density of a sparkline in every number or statistic we see? After all, what good is it know the quarterly revenue of a large public company when we can’t compare their performance from previous quarters?
Once word-sized graphic have become a standard visualization form, we will immediately become skeptical when someone tries to present information outside of its context. When the context is missing, we will suspect that someone is either trying to hide something or is simply not well informed. And since we will then associate speed with carelessness, we will all become as slow as John Franklin when reading and interpreting numbers.