Monday, November 10, 2014

The Use of Visualization in the Communication of Business Strategies: An Experimental Evaluation

This 2014 experiment in the International Journal of Business Communication tested whether the use of visualization is superior to blocks of text for the communication of a seven minute business strategy presentation for the financial services branch of an international car manufacturer. A total of 76 managers saw a seven minute business strategy presentation. The experiment split participants into one control group and two visualization technique treatment groups: block of text slides, visual metaphor, and temporal diagram. Each manager saw one presentation. The experiment found that managers exposed to a graphic representation of the strategy paid more attention, were more likely to endorse the strategy, and better recalled the strategy after one hour of working on an unrelated case study than the managers who saw a textually identical block of text presentation at a statistically significant level. Additionally, managers in the treatment groups perceived the presenter significantly more positively than managers in the control group. 

The perception of the visual accounted for 68.7% of the variation in the perception of the presenter; the perception of the visual is a strong predictor of the perception of the presenter. Although the experiment found significant differences between the treatment groups and the control group for attention, agreement, retention, perception of visual, and perception of presenter; comprehension of the strategy was not significantly different among the three groups when measured immediately after the presentation. The researchers postulate that the results for comprehension was due to measuring comprehension through two multiple choice questions, one which could have been answered without seeing the presentation. Visualization via spatially mapping the strategy content instead of listing it was significantly better than text for measures of attention, agreement with the strategy, and retention. The perception of the presentation and the presenter were significantly better when visualized. 

The three types of visual support that the experiment used. Two text slides (top), visual metaphor (bottom left), and temporal diagram (bottom right).

Visual metaphors explain strategy as a stream of actions geared toward a destination with intermediate goals and restricted by several legal and historic factors. Visual metaphors also highlight elements of strategy that are emergent while others remain unrealized. Visual metaphors make abstract content concrete, memorable, and accessible. 

Temporal diagrams are visual language signs with the primary purpose of denoting function and relationships. Temporal diagrams organize content by location so that the audience accesses and processes the information simultaneously. Temporal diagrams use standard shapes to convey mostly analytical knowledge in a structured and systemic format and make abstract concepts accessible by reducing complexity and aligning planned actions in an ideal sequence. Temporal diagrams provide cues as to where the organization currently is, where it can move to, intermediate objectives, and relationships between parts on different levels. 

Each seven minute presentation consisted of  the same 17 information units. A major overall strategic goal, three sub-goals with three elements each, three success factors for the strategy, and one barrier. In each instance, a large 3x2 meter screen projected the presentation aid. The presenter briefed the content in identical order for all three conditions. Directly after the presentation, a questionnaire measured attention, comprehension, agreement, perception of the visualization, and the perception of the presenter. After a one-hour distraction task in which participants worked on an unrelated case study, a second questionnaire measured the retention of the strategy by the participants. Additional control variables measured included participant background information, perception of legibility, and individual differences on a verbalizer-visualizer dimension of cognitive style using existing, prevalidated scales of measurement.

The experiment did not use extensive guidelines for the use of color and other design considerations because the focus was on the evaluation of the visualizations as a communication aid. The experiment used a real strategy and real managers in a controlled environment. 
Although the presentation length of seven minutes in the experiment and the findings pertaining to appropriate visualization as a communication aid apply to intelligence analysis, a better understanding for measuring participant comprehension needed to inform future experiments. The researchers postulate that differences in comprehension immediately after the presentation were not statistically significant due to the lack of applicable questions pertaining to comprehension. However, the questionnaire distributed immediately after the presentation contained 33 items such as nominal, ordinal, and interval level data for the other measurements in the experiment; and the questionnaire an hour after the presentation contained eight open-ended items. The researchers state that only two multiple choice questions measured comprehension of the strategy and one of the questions could be answered without attending the presentation at all. That particular question prompted participants to select an objective that entails the most risk from three choices. 

Kernbach, S., Eppler, M. J., & Bresciani, S. (2014). The Use of Visualization in the Communication of Business Strategies: An Experimental Evaluation. International Journal of Business Communication 


  1. Ricardo,

    Do you think visualizations can be superior to blocks of texts for DMs-- taking into consideration the complicated material?

  2. Joy,

    I don't see it as a mutually exclusive proposition. For complicated material with many layers and various levels of abstraction; interactive visuals, animated visuals or visuals with hyperlinks to critical data offsets the disadvantages of a static picture.