Incomplete notes from yesterday’s one-day course with @EdwardTufte on Presenting Data and Information


Cartoon by XKCD’s Randall Munroe shared by Tufte as an example of website design from two different perspectives.

Yesterday I attended a one-day course on Presenting Data and Information led by the one and only Edward Tufte. Tufte has self-published many books on the good, bad, and ugly of data visualizations and presentations. Every attendee received these four volumes:
The Visual Display of Quantitative Information (second edition)
Envisioning Information
Visual Explanations: Images and Quantities, Evidence and Narrative
Beautiful Evidence

Tufte began the course with a detailed examination of Weather.gov. He had a lot to say about the site and its pretty amazing collection of maps, charts, and data visualizations. He says anything that presents information should maximize “reasoning about content” time and minimize “figuring out” time. Thus, the work of the user is to learn not how to decipher the info but to learn form it. Tufte likes that Weather.gov — and other well-designed websites — encourage and invite users to scan through all the stuff on the site at their own pace and find something interesting to them. The website should not dictate how the user should use it.

My favorite thing Tufte said was, “The design should be so good that it is invisible.” 

Tufte also said, “People come for the content. So, deliver the content.” (This is when he showed us XKCD’s cartoon – embedded at the top of this post.) He listed key design principle of serious, non-fiction websites — active users want info that is easily scannable (hi-res images are truly interactive), scrollable text and images, and an option to click to another location.

Next, he talked a lot about NYtimes.com. The NYTimes website takes serious non-fiction reporting produced under pressure and makes the content accessible. He pointed out that the articles have no pie charts, because for small data sets, the numbers are in the article embedded in the sentences. (Tufte further states that little data graphics make you look stupid, and graphics don’t make boring numbers interesting. If your numbers are boring, it’s a content problem.)

Next up was an examination of espn.com. He points out that good charts with lots of numbers never order the nouns in the table alphabetically. Rather, the measure is by some order of performance/importance. He stressed that, similarly, school data should be organized by measures of performance, since when you order by performance, you have a chance to learn something (top rated schools, most diverse schools, most expensive schools, some other achievement). Another soundbyte from Tufte was, “The difference between a good idea and a great idea is execution – it gets done. In the world of smart people good ideas are a dime a dozen, it’s the performance that counts.”

I liked the part of his talk which advised how to make a presentation (and make your meetings) 20% shorter. He counsels that every meeting should begin with a document (and that document can be presented in different ways: PDF, iPad with info on it, paper). He gives up 10-12 minutes of time at the beginning of the session for people to do this reading, as rarely will people read in advance. He then asks for questions, take notes about people’s questions, and answers them without extra words. So, for Tufte, if a meeting was scheduled for 30 minutes, he strives to finish in 24 minutes, and everyone is happy.

Tufte quoted from an interview with Jeff Bezos by Conor Neill, “Amazon Staff Meetings: ‘No PowerPoint'”. In it, Bezos shares:

Powerpoint is easy for presenter, hard for audience
“The traditional kind of corporate meeting starts with a presentation. Somebody gets up in front of the room and presents with a powerpoint presentation, some type of slide show.  In our view you get very little information, you get bullet points.  This is easy for the presenter, but difficult for the audience.  And so instead, all of our meetings are structured around a 6 page narrative memo.”

Next up was a look at PLOS.org, the Public Library of Science. Tufte shared that for all those long and dense scientific writings, the summary/abstract is usually the only thing that will be read. He said, “All of science and engineering runs on abstracts and not the entire content of the papers.” This abstract included: the problem, the relevance to the problem, the solution. Tufte says only a stalker reads the whole paper. Haha.

Tufte recommends WriteLATEX as a typeface for scientific writing and said he used it for his own books. He also loves GoogleMaps and said they are used more often than any other data display in human history. Tufte says good images are interactive and allow the viewer to search at their own pace, remain focused, remain interested. As for iPads, “the information is the interface,” and “scroll bars are now in the hands of the user and not in the visual interface.”

Then, Tufte gleefully showed the following Viz-o-matic made by Wayne Lytle to mock glitzy scientific visualization:

He also started and began his course with video clips of Stephen Malinowski‘s visualization of music. Here’s a sample of Stephen’s work from his TEDxZurich talk:

Finally, Tufte shared his free Chrome App, Image Quilts, which he co-produced with Adam Schwartz. Download the app here: https://chrome.google.com/webstore/detail/imagequilts/ceebcpbapdnfnkhfogkbhbgknhgnaoee?hl=en

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