What Can ‘Where’s Wally’ Teach Us About Data Visualisation?


Are you making a ‘Where’s Wally’ puzzle of your data analysis? At first, this might not seem like an obvious question to ask, but think about it. The challenge and enjoyment offered by Martin Handford’s puzzles stem from scanning intricate images, being visually tripped up by puns and tricks, whilst painstakingly searching for ‘Wally’. Looking for data in a spreadsheet, a vast set of rows and numbers, is a lot like searching for ‘Wally’. What are the lessons we can learn?

There’s a reason why ‘Where’s Wally’ is so effective and enduringly popular. The human brain is evolved to use colour, shapes and patterns as catalysts for cognitive recognition. These originally enabled us to spot threats in the environment; now they enable us to spot trends and sequences in charts more easily. ‘Where’s Wally’ puzzles play havoc with this ability. They confuse the mind by making everything in the images a similar size, colour and shape. The only way to find Wally is to look closely at every element.

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In Wally’s world this is fun but in the world of data analysis this approach is time-consuming and hugely frustrating. What’s surprising is that in our working lives, spreadsheets and poorly designed charts make ‘Where’s Wally’ puzzles out of data. This is not an approach that is conducive to making quick and informed business decisions. Have those analysing spreadsheets in offices forgotten to factor in the simple facts of human evolution dictating how our minds work? Given the option of finding insight in a spreadsheet or an engaging and creative graphic, which one would you choose? I know which I’d prefer!

Let’s think of our insightful data as ‘Wally’ himself.;

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