On walkabout in life and technology

Hiltmonism - Information, Not Data

How many times have you opened a spreadsheet or a system, and seen pages and pages of numbers and gone ‘Ugh, its too hard to find what I want!’.

Most systems and spreadsheets try to present everything to their users, reams and reams of raw unfettered data. And most users, if you ask them, both want the data and hate the data volume that they have to deal with. Looking closer at the situation, the reason they want the raw data is because they believe they can use the data to get answers to their questions, or use the data to do their jobs. Lets call these answers that they really need ‘information’. Wouldn’t it be better if the software simply showed the user the information as and when they needed it, instead of making them work and strain to extract it?

Absolutely. That’s what computers excel at.

Getting from data to information is hard, though. Users oftentimes are unable to phrase the questions they need to ask or even explain what informational nuggets they are looking for. Users often don’t even know what questions they need answered. And users also distrust systems that provide information without also providing the data as backup (even though they could not possibly go through the raw data because there’s just too much of it).

A great software designer gets to know the business needs and the information that users will need to perform their specific jobs. Good designers watch users and see what they do with the data they have, what information they need, and see what they should be doing with information if they had it. The designer should then break down these informational needs into a simpler, navigable structure, filter useless information and design screens for each and every remaining information set. Simple information sets are easy for us humans to find and use.

Information, good, easily accessed information, enables users to perform their jobs better and makes them happier. Raw data distracts them, and holds them back. A good designer asks users what information they want. But gives them the information they really need.