Your Brain & Report Design Part 1 – The Attentive vs the Intuitive Process

image11I do a number of Power BI workshops, were over a few days I guide people through the features of Power BI, what it is good at, what its limitations are, and after a training exercise on a basic data set to familiarise the clients with Power BI Desktop, we get started on report building with their own data. In that phase of the workshop, it is always interesting to see what they build, particularly how they lay it out and what colours they use.

After some, lets say, very interesting design choices, I started adding in a section into the workshop slides on report design best practice, mainly based on the guidance in the book ‘Information Dashboard Design by Stephen Few‘ and ‘Storytelling with Data by Cole Knaflic‘. In these books, and a few others, it talks about the ‘attentive process’, and how by incorrectly choosing visuals you make the information presented hidden, obscured or you just can’t see the pattern.

In delivering a BI solution, we spend a lot of time on the extraction, transformation and the data model, and most of the project time is done there, doing all the cool technical stuff, integrating, adding business logic and so forth. However for the end users they don’t get to see all that effort, all they see is the tip of the iceberg that is your report. So after all that effort you want to make sure they can clearly see the information, and make informed choices based on it. So now rather than talking about Extraction, Transformation and Loading of data (ETL), but we should now be thinking about about presenting the information as well, so I suggest a change, is should no longer just be ETL, but ETLS

  • Extraction
  • Transform
  • Load
  • Show

So there are a number of blogs, posts and books about report design like this one on the Power BI website, but the make over example that they show is still in my opinion badly laid out and presented. So, if there is so much stuff written and talked about report design, what makes this one different?  Well most of the blog posts and books about report design, don’t go into depth of the psychology of the how the mind works when processing data, visually and otherwise. They do talk about the ‘attentive process’ or ‘pre-attentive process’, but don’t really talk about what makes it different from a non-attentive process. Also most posts don’t show how presenting a value can still make it to abstract for you to understand, and how you apply negative or positive bias to a value shown.

So in this series of posts I’m going to first take a step back and show you what the difference is between an attentive process and an non-attentive process, then show you how to apply it to report design. Don’t worry it’s not to heavy on the psychology, but you will learn something about how your mind works and how to best apply it in report design, and maybe other things too.

Did you know, that human brain has 30% of it’s neurons work on processing vision. This compares the 8% for touch and 3% for hearing.

A tale of two processes – Intuitive v Attentive

I’m going to take you through a little test, don’ worry its fun, but it will demonstrate the difference between the intuitive and attentive process.

Right lets start with the following example. What would you say the expression on this persons face is?


You may have guessed that this person is happy! Lets try some more, if you like try shouting it out loud to the Laptop/Tablet/Mobile that you are viewing it on! I’ll separate it, with a count down. So next one…







This person is a little bit sad! Ready for the next one, here we go!







And back to happy. Next one is slightly different…







Rrraggghhhh, this person is angry! Next one is a little different







Wow! What?! I did say it would be slightly different, the answer is of course 127

But it did switch you from an intuitive to an attentive process. The recognition of facial expressions is intuitive, we do it everyday, we started learning as babies and as it is an intuitive process it doesn’t require much in the way of brain processing power.

The maths question was of course a jump to the attentive process, that does require a bit of brain power, in fact when (or if) you tried to work it out, you had a couple of physical responses, your heart rate increased and your pupils dilated. So the basic comparisons between the intuitive and attentive process is as follows:

Intuitive Process

  • Lower mental effort, automatic and effortless
  • Will pass on items that break the rules of the intuitive (in the above case, switch from facial recognition to calcution) to the attentive process
  • Intuitive processes are prone to biases and errors

Attentive Process

  • Higher mental effort
  • Physical responses – Pupil dilation, heart rate increase, glucose levels drop after prolonged work
  • Familiar attentive tasks may become intuitive tasks

Lets have a look at some of those bullet points a bit closer.

  • Intuitive processes are prone to biases and errors

What does that mean? Well a good example is the following question, don’t try to work it out, just quickly think of the answer:

A bat and ball cost £1.10 The bat costs £1 more than the ball
How much does the ball cost?

If you said 10p you would be wrong, the actual answer is 5p. That wrong quick answer is your intuitive process throwing a quick answer to you.

  • Familiar attentive tasks may become intuitive task

Learning to drive is a good example. At first it was quite tricky recalling the order, mirror, signal, manoeuvre, changing gears, finding the bite point on the clutch, where the indicators are and all the other bits. How much do you think about getting into the car, starting the engine and driving off now? It should now be, to some degree, an intuitive process, you can think about what you will be having for dinner, happily driving down the road, then the car in front of you puts its brakes on, then your attention is forced to respond and do something.

This separation of tasks comes under the name of dual process theory. In psychological literature, you will tend to find the terms System 1 and System 2 being used. System 1 is the intuitive process, System 2 the attentive process.

If you think about it, this separation of tasks helps us to make decisions, so for the question what sandwich shall I have for lunch, System 1. Shall I buy that house? System 2. That process separation stops us from over thinking things. For a good read on the subject I recommend the book Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman it goes through a number of examples on how judgement and decision making works. For his work in this field and its application to behavioural economics he was awarded the 2002 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences.

So how does this apply to report design and how we present data? Well that is for the next part, in which I’ll write about where System 1 and System 2 work with report design. At the moment all you need to understand is that there is a separation in your cognitive processes between the way you understand, interpret and calculate subjects.

Thanks for reading


PS: If you have time, check out Daniel Kahneman’s TED Talk about the The riddle of experience vs. memory. I’ve mentioned this one to my dentist, they don’t seem to have taken on the advice.

PPS: I do talk about this subject at SQL Server/Power BI user groups, If you would like me to talk about it, drop me a email or tweet! Hopefully I’ll be speaking at SQL Relay this year!


2 thoughts on “Your Brain & Report Design Part 1 – The Attentive vs the Intuitive Process

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