How Conjunction Coding Wrecks Project Reports

Project managers the world over are making their project reports difficult to understand, often without knowing it. The problem is information overload, but this time, we’re not talking about including too many tasks or milestones in a project report.

This article covers a different type of information overload: too many dimensions. In other words, even though project managers have gotten better at showing an appropriate amount of detail overall, they are still trying to slice and dice their project plans too many ways at once.

Pretend for a minute that the picture below is a project milestone report and that you need to identify all of your key deliverables, which are marked as blue squares. How quickly and accurately can you find all of the blue squares?

conjunction-codedHow did you do? You should have found three blue squares, though we’ll forgive you if you miscounted or took longer than expected. The image above suffers from conjunction coding, which means that objects have been coded by multiple dimensions–shape and color in this case. Locating the blue squares is difficult because our brains have to process a search for blue objects and square objects at the same time. This example was adapted from Colin Ware’s book, Information Visualization: Design for Perception, which is a great resource for people interested in visualization in general.

To remove the risk of conjunction coding, we need to remove a dimension. Let’s take the same graphic, but strip out the different colors so that our brains are only processing shapes:

shape-codedThe three squares are a lot easier to spot in this case, because we’re not trying to process color at the same time. The same holds true if we hold shapes constant, and vary color instead:

color-codedWhen building a project report, it’s important to apply the same principle of simplicity. Project reports that suffer from conjunction coding will be harder for your audience to understand. Pick a single dimension (e.g. status, responsible person, etc.) to drive the formatting instead of trying to show all of your dimensions at once.

If the analysis of your project dictates multiple dimensions, try creating multiple reports–one for each dimension. You can set these reports side-by-side or sequentially in a PowerPoint presentation to quickly flip between one coding method another. You’ll still be able to show all of the information you need, but without having to leave your colleagues scratching their heads.

This entry was posted in Best Practices, Project Visualization by Safford. Bookmark the permalink.

About Safford

Safford is a versatile technology professional with a solid history of empowering emerging growth companies in a broad array of industries. His employment history includes energy industry consulting at Quorum Software, Senior Manager of Client Services and Technical Sales at telecom service aggregator GetConnected, and Vice President of Strategic Partner Management at electronic payment processor IP Commerce. Prior to his tenure as OnePager's COO, Safford was the company's Vice President of Marketing and Alliances. Safford holds a BA in Psychology and management from Rice University.

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