Loss aversion – wrong chart example

Monney Income - wrong chart

JunkCharts writes an interesting post on how loss aversion can happen in chart-making. The general concept of loss aversion tells us that “people strongly prefer avoiding losses than acquiring gains”. Translated to chart-making, it means that there is a “tendency to avoid losing data at any cost”.

“To clarify, add detail” says Tufte. Corollary: you should make data-dense charts and maximize the data-ink ratio. Problem is, this fits too well into the loss aversion tendency. Take the above chart, for instance: does it make any sense to add those nine series to a single chart? What insight do you get from it? Only one: the designer don’t know how to handle a larger number of data series.

Remove irrelevant data series and you risk a mutiny on the Bounty, even if relevant trends are easier to detect. It is absurd, but very human.

So, how can you give the users all the data they expect while keeping the chart clean and readable? Well, to clarify, add detail to existing patterns (that’s what I just did to Tufte’s sentence…).

Tufte talks about “data layers”; Ben Schneiderman’s Visual Information-Seeking Mantra (“overview first, zoom and filter, then details-on-demand”); the focus+context technique. All they convey a simple idea: prioritize your data. Know what is relevant and what is nice to have. Don’t give the user a final product. Make an interactive chart and let her discover what’s inside.

I see this loss aversion tendency at work every day at the office. Do you too? How do you handle it?