Tensions in survey reporting

Thomas Lumley at StatsChat discusses the efficiencies of infographics versus more conventional data visualisations.

“These displays are, actually, less efficient and accurate at conveying information.  In a situation where information does need to be conveyed efficiently and accurately, bling or eye candy wouldn’t matter so much, but puzzles need to be avoided.”

I enjoyed reading his post, and it got me thinking about the tensions I sometimes experience when reporting survey results*. Two of these I outline below:

1. Straight forward versus comprehensive reporting

Senior decision makers need reports to cut to the chase. These audiences don’t have the time or inclination to draw meaning from endless data tables, descriptions, analyses, interpretive commentary, and methodological details. A good report, in their eyes, is one that delivers the relevant results that can have an impact on the work they do. Anything else is usually considered superfluous.

Researchers will often spend hours or days toiling over research design and reports, trying to figure out how to deliver results that are meaningful and robust. Excluding these details, or relegating them to an appendix, can sometimes be hard to swallow, but it’s necessary.

Other audiences, including researchers and academics, often want reports to be very comprehensive and detailed. They want to be able to replicate a study from the methodology description, and to draw their own conclusions about the research.  Reports designed for senior decision makers can be viewed with distaste by researchers and academics.

Occasionally there are multiple audiences for research reports. These situtations can be particularly challenging. In these situations I sometimes favour producing two reports, but of course these take additional time and resources.

2. Conventional versus engaging data visualisations

There is often demand to make research results more accessible and engaging. This can mean leaving conventional charts behind, and developing infographics or interactive data displays. I really enjoy doing this sort of thing, and I have the privilege of working with a team of talented people who do this full-time. However, I often find that we’re walking a careful line between engaging and confusing.

So what’s the take home message?

The take home message from all of the above is know your audience. If you don’t know your audience, you may well miss your mark.

*This presentation (which I also found on StatsChat) is by Jonathan Corum, who is the science and graphics editor at the The New York Times. Jonathan also discusses some of the tensions in reporting data.

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