Effective and efficient perception of information

Scientific proof of the success of visualisations (& projected on IBCS)

Scientific proof of the success of visualisations (& projected on IBCS)

In my previous blog “The Economic Benefits of Information Standardization” I have made a comparison between standardization within industries, like production processes, and the creation of management reports and dashboards. Where standardisation will lead to a reduced cost of ownership.

In this blog I focus on the other side of the spectrum; the information consumer aka the decision maker. The first section is a summary of scientific articles published regarding the ability of information consumers to retrieve relevant information in an efficient and effective way. Or in common language; will there be a reduction of time needed to perceive the information and with less errors?

The research

Researchers of following universities: University of Applied Science Upper Austria, Saïd Business School – University of Oxford and Modul University Vienna have conducted research over the last couple of years which resulted in several articles (see bibliography and authors at the end of the blog).

Based on previous findings the researchers made use of eye tracking technology to conduct their research. Therefore they observed both professionals and students with a study in the business administration area in a laboratory setup.

Apart from the error rates and task completion times, eye tracking focuses on the way the observers of visualisations read and make sense of the presented stimulus, a prepared visualisation in the form of a management report.

Eye tracking

One of the things measured with eye tracking is the fixation of the eye on the areas of interest (AIO’s); how long and also how often an observer looks at an AIO. Other measures are: saccades (shifts between fixation location, during the movement of the eye no information acquisition can take place), pupil (pupil diameter enlarges in states of high mental load) and blinks (blinking is said to indicate information processing).

Let’s go through a simple setup regarding management reports in 2 different layouts. In the example below is a heatmap showing the fixations and the AIO’s of one layout.

Where the heatmap shows the concentration, the fixation path shows how the eyes are moving from one particular AIO to another. For example visualisations with the use of legends instead of labelling in the graph itself, will lead to an increased eye movement between both AIO’s (the graph and the legend).

And as result the data regarding effectiveness (task accuracy) and efficiency (task duration) over the whole sample of observers can be collected, measured and tested on significance.

In above sample a clear increase of accuracy and decrease in time was measured when a layout was chosen with improved visualisation and in line with the task to be executed.

Other factors

The efficient and effective information processing and decision making is not only depending on the chosen visualisation. Other factors are of influence as well, which determine the cognitive load and result in the efficiency and effectiveness.

Obviously the complexity of the task to be performed (lookup of a single value or making a comparison) and complexity of data has impact on the cognitive load, whereas the knowledge and experience of the information consumer will make it possible to handle a higher cognitive load.

Information overload

In the situation that the cognitive load is becoming too high, an information overload occurs. The load is the summation of information and noise. And in result the efficient and effective information processing will hamper. It will cost more time and is more prone to errors.

Let’s move away from the research and project this on self-service BI. In this case both relevant and non-relevant (noise) information is being offered to a group of information consumers. It is not taken into account what the task and complexity level needed is per individual information consumer, as the dashboards created are of generic setup – create once, used by many. This means that self-service BI leads to a higher cognitive load, or even an information overload. It will be less efficient and effective than a (management) report created to support a specific task for a specific information consumer.


The publications are covering different aspects and there are many hypothesis being tested. Some rejected while others tested positively. There are too many findings to share, below just a few of the findings:

  • Layout optimization based on human cognition, reduces response time and lower the amount of (re)fixations needed.
  • Standardisation and repetitive reporting helps to draw the right conclusion in a fast way. Where standardization should not hinder changes towards a perception-optimized layout.
  • Visualisations targeted to the audience will in turn increase the capacity of information perception and improve decision making.
  • Cognitive load is of high relevance for practice. System and interface designers need to avoid creating information overload for the respective users.

The Link with IBCS

Though the researches did not used IBCS specific reports as stimuli, there is a parallel in the findings and the concept to IBCS.

IBCS is based on 3 pillars: conceptual, perceptual and semantic rules. For the perceptual part it is clear that proper visualisation will help to reduce the cognitive load and lead to a more efficient and effective information processing and decision making. Perceptual rules are becoming widely accepted in the design of dashboards and reports.

The conceptual rules - SAY and STRUCTURE - will help in the sense that the focus is on the message ie. the task to be performed and by giving a good structure of the content that what is complex becomes easier to digest (data type).

Additionally a main factor of influence are the semantic rules. Based on these rules a standardisation is introduced within (management) reporting which will free up the working memory capacity of the recipient. Working memory capacity is limited. Through repetition and standardisation we are able to make use of our capabilities of the long term memory, which is “unlimited” in capacity. This is what you see with, for example, engineers and architects. Based on their standardisation in the industry, they are able to read blueprints at a high condensation level without getting an information overload.


Many thanks to the University of Applied Sciences Upper Austria, Austria for sharing the publications and in specific Ms. Lisa Falschlunger.

This blog is based on a personal interpretation of scientific publications. I tried to be as precise as possible.

University of Applied Sciences Upper Austria, Austria
Said Business School, University of Oxford, UK
Modul University Vienna, Austria

Lisa Falschlunger
Christoph Eisl
Heimo Losbichler
Elisabeth Grabmann
Horst Treiblmaier
Othmar Lehner

Report Optimization using Visual Search Strategies An Experimental Study with Eye Tracking Technology (2014)

Visual Representation of Information as an Antecedent of Perceptive Efficiency: The Effect of Experience (2016)

Cognitive Differences and Their Impact on Information Perception: An Empirical Study Combining Survey and Eye Tracking Data (2015)

InfoVis: The Impact of Information Overload on Decision Making Outcome in High Complexity Settings (2016)

Using Gaze Behavior to Measure Cognitive Load (2018)