Sticky Information

[update] Actually, it was the weekend before last. I forgot to publish this post last week…

I was reading a couple of unrelated articles in The Sunday Times last weekend that shared a common theme – the stickiness of information. It made me think (yes, my brain is still in recovery). On the one hand, we can be very lazy about acquiring information (Google trumps the local library for starters), spectacularly avoiding it when we don’t like what it tells us. But on the other hand, when we find information that fits our expectations, it becomes very sticky and we are reluctant to let it go. I believe this has important consequences for information systems design.

Article no.1 – Michael Schumacher

In Formula 1 motor racing, Michael Schumacher has been at the top for over a decade and the results speak for themselves. Seven world championships and in the running for an eighth. With his retirement all but announced (and it was on Sunday), Martin Brundle wrote an article covering Schumacher’s career and the reasons why he won’t be remembered just as a great champion.

“He cannot see when he crosses the line between tough but fair and ruthless but foul… exacerbated by his total belief that he cannot be wrong. He has a default mode in the car: if you’re going to pass him, he will drive you off the road.”

Brundle goes on to list some examples, including two title-deciding races that saw the contenders seeing dust, literally. There were other incidents too, such as when his team-mate was required to move over to let him win, and when he won a race by delaying a penalty pit stop until his final lap to minimise the time he would lose. He didn’t break the rules but his behaviour didn’t fit with ‘fair play’, an emotive subject. And that’s why everybody remembers. For all the races he won, the pole positions, the podium finishes that by far outweigh incidents of questionable behaviour and the sheer brilliance of his driving skills, he’ll be remembered for the sticky information.

Article no.2 – Afghanistan

On a far more serious note, the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan was back in the headlines. A comment in one of the many articles highlighted the challenge facing the NATO-led campaign:

“The Taliban have won the information war”, admitted a senior military officer last week. “Everyone is convinced we’re there to destroy the poppy and thus their livelihood. We’ve not provided any information to farmers so why should they think any different?”

Here is sticky information of a very different and far more dangerous nature, putting lives at risk. The story the farmers have been given fits with the evidence in front of their eyes and directly affects them in a bad way. Whose side would you take if you were in their shoes? How do you persuade them to believe you instead?

Fortunately, most information systems do not involve risking peoples’ lives. But information systems design rarely takes into account the sticky factor. Instead, the focus is usually on prioritising information based on its importance, and importance is usually determined by the sender rather than the receiver. Hence the home page of an intranet will be filled with business goals and news (e.g. “we’ve won a big new order for product X!”) that, at best, gets read once whilst the sticky information (e.g. “they’re going to outsource product X and make us all redundant”) travels through the unofficial grapevine. Next time you are designing a web site or thinking about adding another KPI (key performance indicator) to a dashboard, ask whether or not the information is sticky – will it change actions or will it be ignored? Is there existing sticky information that needs to be removed? Can it be removed?

Misleading Pictures

Jon Udell has an excellent blog post showing why you should not assume that images are providing an accurate picture.

He mentions reading two of Edward Tufte’s books over Christmas. Coincidentally, I was also reading some of Tufte’s work during December: ‘The Visual Display of Quantitive Information‘ and ‘The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint‘. Both are excellent reads if you are interested in doing a better job of presenting information, as well as how to spot misleading visualisations.

Here is one snippet that should be observed by all those (mostly Microsofties, at the moment) who are swooning over the new visualisation features in PowerPoint 12 and Excel 12:

The number of variables depicted should not exceed the number of dimensions in the data. The use of 2 (or 3) varying dimensions to show one-dimensional data is a weak and inefficient technique, capable of handling only very small data sets, often with error in design and ambiguity in perception.

Anybody who uses 3d bar charts needs to consider this point carefully. Here’s a simple example:

The data presented in these two charts is identical, but it is much clearer and easier to analyse on the right. The shaded area in the 3D version on the left does not add any information and makes it harder to compare the data values.

On a related subject (I had a bit of a reading splurge during December) the book Freakonomics provides some great examples that demonstrate why we should not jump to conclusions and assume cause and effect when we see correlation between two data sets. Correlation only indicates a relationship between two elements, it does not prove that one causes the other. One of the most common abuses of statistics is to present indicators as causes.

As the technologies to store and analyse large quantities of information improve, it is important that we also improve our abilities to correctly interpret and present the information if we are to avoid poor decisions and the resulting consequences.

Related posts:

The Puppet Master

Tonight I attended the Francis Crick Prize Lecture, held at The Royal Society, London, UK. The talk was ‘The Puppet Master: How the brain controls the body’ presented by Professor Daniel Wolpert, University of Cambridge.

The event was recorded and will be available on the Royal Society’s web site.

Here are some notes and thoughts from the lecture:

Why do we have a brain?

It gives us movement – all of our senses depend upon movement. This is a simple statement but in this information-obsessed world, we tend to forget it.

When Deep Blue defeated Garry Kasparov at Chess, it was headlined by many as the brain’s last stand. But was it? Deep Blue was able to win the game from an information processing perspective, but what if it had also been required to use a robot to move the chess pieces? If the whole point to having a brain is to give us movement, then perhaps that chess match was not as seminal a moment as many believed. Professor Wolpert then made a great quote (well, I thought so):

“We have become data rich, theory poor”.


Movement is surrounded by uncertainty, noise, that affects and influences our senses. It is very difficult to identically repeat the same movement. (The example that came to mind during the talk was that scene from the film ‘The Titanic’ when Kate Winslet’s character practices aiming an axe using the cupboard…) Our brains have to adapt to the noise that influence our senses. (This is one reason why multi-tasking is so inefficient, each task has its own noise and we have to keep switching, filtering and adapting…)

Predicting uncertainty

Bayesian inference is used to diagnose what information is relevant to a given query. The purpose of this research was to examine if the same formula can be applied to brains. Thomas Bayes identified two concepts: the process of inference (diagnosis) and decision theory (making the optimal decision)

The slide had a great perception example (once the web cast is archived, I’ll try and grab the screen shot) of how our brain interprets ‘cos the explanation won’t make sense without it).


When two kids fight, what will you hear them say “he pushed harder than me”, “no she did”, “no he did”… So if they are both your children, who’s telling the truth and who’s lying. As it turns out, they are both telling the truth! Because our brains automatically filter and adapt to noise that our senses pick up, the force we use typically feels less than what we receive – we genuinely don’t think we hit/push/whatever as hard as it feels to the recipient.

The talk described a test environment with two people. Each had to place a finger under a lever. To start the test, pressure was applied to the lever (pressing down onto the finger) for person A. Person A then was then asked to apply the same amount of pressure to the lever onto the finger of person B. Person B then had to repeat the process with the lever onto the finger of person A, and so the test continued. In theory, the pressure should stay the same throughout the test (i.e. a straight horizontal line on a chart). No surprises, in practice, the line was not horizontal! Each person had been given their instructions independently – to attempt to apply the same pressure to the lever as the pressure they felt on their finger. At the end of the test, each person was asked what instructions they thought the other person had been given. Both answered the same: the other person was told to double the pressure! 🙂


Different movements have different optimum goals. For example, walking effectively involves minimising the energy required (unless you are doing fitness walking). If you are eating, the goal is to be accurate – get the food in your mouth, not down your shirt.

The criteria for making the best decision is not always obvious. The example given in the talk: If you want to travel from London to New York, there are various ways. You could take the car and go the whole way round the world; you could take a boat. Most people fly. Why? The immediate assumption is that flying is the quickest way to get there, so what other reason could there be? Well, if you took a scheduled flight, it wasn’t the fastest method – a Harrier Jump Jet would get you there quicker, but might leave a bigger dent in your finances. So money is involved. The optimal travel method involves speed tempered with a ‘reasonable’ cost.

Playing tennis requires lots of different variables – not only predicting where the ball is going to land, how high and fast it is going to bounce etc. but also where you want to send it when you hit it. Our brains have to rapidly decipher all of this information and determine (and then carry out) the optimal movement.

There’s lots of talk about computers taking over human brain capacity in the near future. But how true is that belief? Computers may exceed our abilities to store and process information, but I’d like to see Deep Blue win a tennis match, climb a mountain, discover that a drug intended to help treat cardio-vascular diseases had unexpected side effects (they ended up calling it Viagra).


So if noise influences and interrupts our senses, and our brains have to adapt to it in order to make optimal decisions about movement, why don’t our senses do a better job of filtering and reducing noise? It is probably because there are times when we need noise – without it, we could never multitask. Without it, my amygdalas wouldn’t spot that spider that just started walking across the carpet 10 yards away from my computer desk. Without it, parents probably wouldn’t wake up when the baby starts crying.

There’s more information in the web cast and I’d recommend watching it – very entertaining and informative. I’ve added in some notes here, having just read Daniel Pink’s ‘A Whole New Mind‘ and being half way through Dr Richard Restak’s ‘The New Brain‘ Both books reference exercises mentioned in the talk.

Distracting Data

A follow on from the ‘Dashboard Dangers‘ entry. Here is a simple example of why summary information can distract you from messy realities, from a different perspective.

From ‘Imperialism and World Politics, by Parker Thomas Moon, published 1927 (Macmillan)

…Language often obscures truth. More than is ordinarily realised, our eyes are blinded to the facts by tricks of the tongue. When one uses the simple mono-syllable ‘France’ one thinks of France as a unit, an entity. When… we use a personal pronoun in referring to a country, for example ‘France sent her troops to conquer the Tunis”, we impute not only unity but personality to the country… all too easily we forget the flesh-and-blood men and women who are the true actors. How different would it be if we had no such word as ‘France’, and had to say instead: ’38 million men, women, and children of very diversified interests and beliefs, inhabiting 218,000 square miles of territory’ Then we should more accurately describe the Tunis expedition… as this: ‘A few of these 38 million persons sent 30,000 others to conquer the Tunis.’ This way of putting the fact immediately suggests a question, or rather a series of questions. Who are the few? Why did they send the 30,000 to Tunis? And why did the 30,000 obey?

A very different context, but the same argument. Summary information can lead you to make snap judgements and form opinions, when you should be asking more questions…


Ah, the age old quote ‘ perception is reality’

Here’s a couple of web sites with great illusions that show how our eyes can decieve us. – Colour Perception

PatMedia – Cool Illusion

Regarding the second one, I have it on good authority (my mom) that it works better if you shut one eye 🙂 Oh…. and apparently if you stare at it as long as mom did, you’ll get a headache 😦

I love these sorts of tricks – they can be provide a great intro when challenging peoples’ opinions about a subject, something I’ve had to do in the day job on a few occasions…