Your Brain & Report Design Part 3 – 10% or 1 in 10?

image11This is Part 3 in my series of blogs posts (fairly infrequent), about report design options, based around the cognitive process. This post I’ll be looking at framing the answer. What is framing the answer? It is how best to show the result in the context of the question, and in some cases influence the user to taking action on it.

Framing the answer

For example have a look at the following.


Both are showing the same thing, just from a difference perspective. One great example of how to frame the answer is how a doctor would talk to you about an operation:


Framing the result is leading the user through a positive or negative emotional context. ‘We missed the target by 3 %’ or ‘We achieved 97% of the target’ have different contexts around them. I would suggest that the second statement is perceived as more positive as the first one. So the first step is to define that context in the data you want to display.

Is it abstract

The next thing to consider, is the value abstract? Can the user identify or associate with the value? For example:


Again both show the same thing, but at a cognitive level the Failure Rate 10% is an abstract number, hard to visualize, but 1 in 10 isn’t. Some parts manufacturers moved from showing percentage values to ‘in something’ values as it focused the report consumer more directly. As a result, there was a lot more attention to the failure rates, which then lead to action, and a reduction in the part failure rate.

In the book Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman (He is a physiologist who won a Noble Prize in economics) he talks about this affect. Also he indicates that prosecution lawyers will use one or the other the try to convince the jury or parole board. ‘This person has a one in ten chance of re-offending’ or ‘This person has a ten percent chance of re-offending’. Subtle differences, but priming the jury to an outcome that they want.

So when next creating a report, think about how to frame the result, and how best to display the result. I’ve used it recently in sickness rates, moving from a percentage to a proportion of the workforce, with positive results.

The Prime Number

One more thing about numbers, and this is something that you can try yourself. You can prime people with a value to affect their next response.

Ask one set of people the following:

Have you seen the film 80 Days around the world?

The next set:

Have you seen the film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs?

The next question you ask to both groups:

How many countries are in Africa?

You, hopefully, should get higher estimated values from the first set, and lower estimates for the second set. Why? You have already primed them with a value, 80 for the first set and 7 for the second. basically you have pass a unconscious stimulus to them to provoke a response from a later unrelated question. I’ve done and number of these tests, for example, I asked one group to give me an estimate of a price of a laptop. One group had in the question, do not give a value below £800, the other do not give a value above £1500. A final group didn’t have any mention of a estimate limit. For the results of the questions that had a ceiling or floor on the estimate, the responses were in a small range. For the group ‘do not give a value below £800, most where in  a small range around  £1100. For the group ‘do not give a value above £1500’ they where a small range of £1300. For the group with out a ‘prime’ the ranges were quite wide from £600 to £2000. It is an interesting example of how you can influence people with out them knowing!

I highly recommend the book Thinking, Fast and Slow, it shows how you understand and perceive a numbers. It is focused on estimating and risk, but it does go through a wide range of topics, that are eye opening in how your brain works.

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