Purpose of presenting information is to help the decision making process.  Information presenters should have the spirit of whatever it takes to help the process. This was the premise of Edward Tufte’s workshop I attended in San Francisco on Dec 9.  Here are my notes from the workshop:

Data analysis

Information overload is caused by lousy design. Humans process huge volumes of data everyday.
The challenge is presenting multivariate data on a two dimensional surface like paper or screen.
Finding causality is the goal of data analysis. Unlike physical world where the causality is constant, in the human world causality is impermanent. In fact we look for causality to do an intervention and break the causal chain.
Design should support data comparison. Spatial adjacency is better than temporal adjacency for data comparison.

Information presenters

Presenting information is an intellectual and ethical activity.
Do not cherry pick data.
Respect your audience.
Know your content.
Your presentation should support an unguided cognitive walk through.

Information Consumers

Check the sources of information used in presentation.
Evaluate the competency of the presenter.
Is the result too good to be true?
Have an open mind but not an empty head.

Design Principles

Use the resolution of typography. Content is the design. Don’t put boxes around everything.
Treat design as a research problem rather than a creative problem.
To find examples of good visualization read scientific journals like Nature.
In design 1+1=3 . If two design elements are put next to each other, an interaction effect is added to the effects of the two elements.

User Interface Design

1st generation of interfaces was command line based, like DOS. Involved remembering and typing
2nd generation interfaces – GUI using windows and icons. Involved clicking and pointing
3rd generation is likely to be touch base high resolution
Computers separate information by mode of production. Users have to go to different application  “rooms” to work on different modes of production
In recovery.gov ET set a goal of using 92% of screen space for content

Overall Tufte gave a lot of food for thought. He showed a lot of good design examples from Galileo’s recordings of the sun spots to a SARS virus outbreak. But all his examples were static content or structurally static (like weather forecast). He picked examples where the designer knows the content exactly. This works well for board room presentations and publishing. But while designing a web application the content or even the structure of the content is not known to the designer. In my current project, I am designing an web application that can be customized by banks for their business needs. So the design has to be flexible for a wide range of requirements. In other words, web designers have to design web applications before there is any content, ergo we have to treat content and design separately. My main takeaway from the workshop was his spirit of “whatever it takes”.

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