How Effective is Visual Perception in Accounting?
What is visual perception? Simply put, it is the brain’s ability to comprehend what it sees. However, many people — particularly accountants — complicate it way too much. For example, have you ever spent hours on a report or presentation only to find yourself answering more questions than you intended? Reading it through only left you more confused than when you started? Instead of relying only on words to get your point across, implement visuals to help your reader more quickly understand the information you’re trying to portray.
Answer the following questions based on the chart below:
Which student scored the highest in Q2? Which student had the highest overall score?
You may feel a bit overwhelmed by looking through all the numbers in the chart. There’s no clear sense of direction towards answering the questions. Now, check out the chart below and see if it’s any easier to comprehend:
Which student scored the highest in Q4? Which student had the highest overall score?
What is the difference between the two charts? They both have the same information… However, in Chart 2, I guided your eyes to where I wanted them to go. The highest score in each quarter has been bolded and highlighted with the font slightly bigger than the others. (Did you even realize the font was a bit bigger? These changes are subtle enough for you to quickly identify the answers without becoming distracting.)
Let’s be honest. Most people don’t like spend a lot of time reading through something. We live in a world of here and now…instant gratification. For accounting, let’s call this Instant Graphificiation. (See what I did there?… It’s not a real word, but you get what I mean.)
Cole Nussbaumer Knaflic wrote a book titled, Storytelling with Data: A Data Visualization Guide for Business Professionals. This book covers a lot of awesome material, such as a chapter called: "Choosing An Effective Visual". It discusses different types of graphs, the dos and don’ts of visuals, and more. If you get a chance, read this book and thank me later.
So, why don’t accountants remember how important visual perception is? Well…They forget to keep it SIMPLE. They personally know their data inside out, upside down and sideways, but forget that their audience doesn’t. You need to guide your audience with clear representations of the information.
Narrow down your topic and tell ONE story per graph. Then, highlight 2–3 main points that each graph is discussing. Again, we want to guide our audience. With a combination of effective visuals and solid points to back up our graphs, we can get the story across more effectively.
Here’s an example of Instant Graphification for you:
The above graph has a clear message and is easy enough to be understood by almost anyone. By keeping it simple, you invite those that are interested to learn more about the data. Yet, they also have the ability to understand it with single glance.