Can data viz halt the zombie scroll?

I remember the moment years ago when I realized that stunning photographs of sunsets no longer attracted my attention. Their ready availability had rendered them ordinary to my eyes. In a similar manner, the sheer proliferation of social media posts—whether image- or data-based—can dull our response to them. We instinctively scroll past them. Science confirms that familiarity breeds inattention.

“In effect, the retinal cells themselves became inured to exposure to a consistent pattern and ‘perked up’ when exposed to something new and different.”

—Markus Meister, neuroscientist

Data viz displays in social media not only have to push past our visual ennui but also have to make numbers intriguing—and do so in less than three seconds. A lot has been written about how to create data posts that stand out. Conventional wisdom serves us well: feature data insights that matter to your audience, and keep it simple. The most common mistake I see is a post featuring a densely packed data chart—say, nine or 10 segmented columns with multiple labels—squeezed into a small area that necessitates a tiny font size. Try visualizing the most striking data point instead, and then refer readers to more detailed content via a link.

The best data viz posts convey a single insight in an uncluttered layout, where chart and text work in tandem to support the message. Create a balanced visual hierarchy—i.e., arrange elements to indicate their order of importance. Make thoughtful use of the size, spacing, and color of all the elements: charts, number callouts, illustration, and text.

Beyond those basic recommendations, how can you address the numbing effect of the scrolling feed? It helps to be selective in what you post. Avoid a steady stream of same-old that encourages pattern fatigue. Beyond that, see if you can make magic. Serve up a post that delights, one that has a certain je nais sais quoi.

In reviewing LinkedIn data viz posts over the past few months, while attempting to avoid a case of zombie scrolling, I was attracted to several posts from Bain & Company. They stood out from the lushly produced images and complex data charts in my feed. It felt like peacefully sinking into a haiku after glazing over after looking at a stream of 400-page academic tomes.

This first example is a simple bar chart, but clever use of color and sizing in the segments provides a structure on which to hang two data callouts. The pale gray bars showing the amount customers already pay foregrounds the bright aqua color, which indicates the premium companies charge for sustainable products. Together, the bars and percentages highlight the gap between willingness to pay versus the premium charged. Add in large font sizes and lots of white space, and the result is eye-catching.

This next post attracted me with its whimsical feel. As above, the content is simply data quotations with added illustrative elements instead of a bare-bones chart. Some might argue that the two-toned circles are a faulty display of an accurate data representation (24% and 35%). But the playful lines and color belie any serious effort to chart the percentages. Here, visual novelty is the point.

Last, though looping animation usually annoys me (I don’t like to wait for the full content to land), the illustrated unicorn horn functioning as a display of increasing quantity made me pause. Once again, visual novelty intrigued me enough to stop my scrolling and digest the content.

It takes thought and creativity to stand out on social media. And the constraints of brand guidelines may require even more effort to produce visually novel content. Make “keep it simple” and “break the pattern” your mantras. Use your imagination, add a twist to the expected visual (without breaking good practices in data display), and see what happens.

Mary Reddy

Before joining Leff as a senior adviser on data visualization, Mary spent more than 20 years as the data visualization editor for the McKinsey Quarterly, developing data stories for a wide range of industries and publication channels. She brought data insights, visual structure, and UI/UX considerations to static charts, interactives, infographics, multimedia, and conceptual frameworks. Mary studied visual communications at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and has a B.A. in fine art from Loyola University, Chicago.