Your Brain & Report Design Part 2 – Reports and Cognitive Burden

Not done a blog post for a few months, sorry work getting in the way a bit.

In Part One I talked about the Intuitive (System 1) and the Attentive (System 2) processes, and the separation and focus of these mental processes. Here is a quick reminder of the functions of both parts.

System 1 (Intuitive) System 2 (Attentive)
Fast Slow
Unconscious Conscious
Automatic Effortful
Everyday Decisions Complex Decisions
Error Prone Reliable

Cognitive Burden

In an number of texts about report design, the phase Cognitive Burden is used. With the outline of System 1 and 2, cognitive burden is impact of switching between the two functions and making it harder for the System 2 Attentive process to work out what is going on. So in some regards you can use bits of System 1 to help with System 2, and also focus System 2 get to the underlying understanding of the information a bit quicker.

The main outline of this approach is that of simplification… reduce distraction, reduce clutter, remove anything that is not needed, and this is done in a number of ways:

  • Layout
  • Ordering
  • Colours
  • Visualisation Selection

Also to consider will be ‘Framing the Answer’, how best to present a value, with less abstraction of the how you view it, (which sounds trickier than it is) which I’ll cover  in another post. So in this post I’ll be covering the first two, Layout and Ordering.

Layout – Arranging the space

How to leverage System 1 in layout of reports? Well you use some thing that is easy, intuitive and you are doing it right now… reading. The process of reading is from left to right, top to bottom. However this is approach is biased to the English language in my case, so if you are creating reports in Japanese, you’ll be doing it right to left.

When designing reports, I don’t tend to add the logo of the company that it is for. This is purely a personal approach, I don’t see the need to remind the reader of the company that they work for and it also takes up space on the report, that could be best served for information. So if I do have to add a logo or other graphics or even a title, I tend to put them in the top right. Some times if I can get away with it, the logo goes down the bottom right, nicely out of the way.

So in layout terms I would place what you want the viewer to see first on the left side or in the top left, so they get that first information hit, if it is a particularity important value or report that you want them to see first.

Stop and Search - Power BI

In the above case the three card visuals are the first thing I want the viewer to see, then the Map to supply context, then the rest of the charts.

The next technique I use is to layer the report into three sections based on the granularity of the data, so cards would be at the top, high level data, then charts, then table data.

Stop and Search 2 - Power BI

So as the user moves down the report there is a reveal of information, and you can see the break down of the details as you move though the report.

So, in the above reports, you have used the learned System 1 process of reading and used it on a report. Now you can layout a report, next I’ll be talking about the importance of selecting the right visual.


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