Data Overload Is Not About Human Limitations; It’s About Design Failure

“Confusion and clutter are failures of design, not attributes of information” – Edward Tufte

Data Overload

People throw around the term data overload all the time to describe a problem in a product. On the surface, this seems pretty direct. Users have trouble sorting through the data presented to them and routinely make bad decisions. Designers look at the UI, see how much data users are faced with and immediately declare that there was too much data for users to make the correct choice.

In some cases, there is even a phenomenon from Psychology that people cite to back this up: Hick’s Law. The simple version of Hick’s Law is that the more choices presented to a user, the longer it will take for the user to make a decision.

It’s a standard pattern and leads to pretty consistent design responses: Provide a control that lets the user filter the data (or filter for them it so the data is unavailable altogether), paginate, or implement a search. Perhaps the system designers introduce an analytic to make sure the user sees the important data first (like on your Twitter or Facebook feed). The designer tests the system and gets positive reviews and improved decision-making. The user sees a simpler UI with a manageable amount of data and declares that the system is much better.

This victory, while nice, is a bit hollow. The improvements are generally small and don’t address the root cause of what the user is experiencing. The problem is not that there was too much data (or too many choices), but as the quote from Tufte states, a problem with the design. Finding ways to remove data is almost definitely the worst of good alternatives.

Human Capabilities are Underrated

Despite what most people think, humans are amazing at information management. We have a tremendous capability to take in large quantities of data from a variety of sources and make good decisions about where to focus our attention and what actions to take. If not, we wouldn’t be able to function in our day-to-day lives. Just think about what life is like walking down the sidewalk on a busy street. You have store fronts with signs trying to catch your attention. Traffic lights are signaling cars and flashing the walk / don’t walk signs for pedestrians. Other people are walking all around you. You hear myriad noises from all directions. In short, your senses are being bombarded.

Despite the high sensory input, in these situations you rarely fail to get to your destination. Why? Because humans have evolved mechanisms to process information, filter out the irrelevant, and focus on what’s important. You ignore both the faces in the crowd you don’t recognize and the traffic signal. You don’t care about the walk sign until you get to the intersection. You don’t really notice the gentle slope in the sidewalk, even though your body has adjusted to start walking uphill. You focus on the task at hand — getting to that new restaurant you’ve been meaning to check out.

Good design utilizes these built-in mechanisms to help the user accomplish their goals successfully. They use the human’s innate capability to filter irrelevant information rather than try to guess and filter it for them.