Grasp and Go – Bad Information Graphics in TV Election Coverage

November 9, 2008 § 6 Comments


“Let’s flip back to CNN,” my mom said, “I can’t understand the graphics at the bottom.”

Either could I—at least in the short time that ABC gave me to figure out what I was reading and consider its ramifications. So we watched CNN, even though I think we both liked ABC’s studio hosting better.

There were many problems with ABC’s information graphics, but most of it stems from their decision to show the results from both the Senate races and the Presidential race in the same graphic space at the same time. While showing both results might be a good notion, ABC needed to be more careful with how they presented the visual information.

In all instances, a viewer should be able to quickly identify and understand the on-screen visual information. Or more concisely: Grasp and go. ABC’s design severely inhibits the viewer’s ability to “grasp and go” by ignoring the power of simple visual cues, such as the use of proximity and space. ABC’s ignorance of the visual power of proximity and space starts a whole host of problems, causing a viewer’s eye to group the visual information vertically, like a column or a list. All of which would be great, except that ABC wanted its viewers to read the graphics horizontally, like reading a book.

Reading the information vertically happens for multiple reasons, the first being how close the check boxes are to the left of each name. However, the opposing candidate in each race is actually off to the right, just out of my immediate visual field. For example, if I look at Obama’s name and checkbox, I cannot miss seeing Hagan’s name and checkbox. It’s just there. Conversely, McCain’s name is in another visual “sector” that I have to move my eyes for. So, in one view, I see Obama and Hagan. In another view, I see McCain and Dole. To compare across columns (which is basically what they are), I have to move my eyes across the screen. Further complicating this is that ABC’s design runs counter to the common life experience of an election ballot’s vertical layout. Placing some space or a hard visual line between the two rows would have been immensely helpful. Not a cure-all, but helpful.

Finally, because there is no space or visual cue to separate the rows of information, the viewers’ eyes automatically group the colors into one piece of information. Again, this is completely counter to what ABC wanted us to glean: That there are two different sets of results showing different political races for different states. Combine all this with the 4-5 seconds a viewer has to read and comprehend the results before the results switch to the next race and it’s all too much.

CNN, it was, then. Where they may have had ridiculous holograms and hyperactive coverage, but at least I could understand their information graphics.


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