Analytics are great, you can’t run a business in the 21st Century without them, but… numbers feel so abstract. There’s a lot of processing involved, a lot of mental labor. Maybe you can figure it out if you take some time and crunch them in your head, but it can still feel like a bit of a slog. Not to mention, getting information across to others through numbers alone can be difficult. They haven’t spent as much time with the data as you have and they might not have any idea what it is that you’re getting at.
The truth is that humans are not really analytical creatures. We can do the math, sure, but we don’t really enjoy it, it feels like work to us. What humans respond to is pictures, sounds, music, storytelling, drama, things like that. Numbers generally come up lacking in this area.
We’re still driven by the five senses, and even if we can understand the numbers, we don’t always grasp them in the same way that, for instance, a photograph will hit you with an immediate impact. We can tell you not to leave milk out, we can tell you the ideal temperature for it, but nothing is going to make the point as well as popping the cap off of a jug and smelling spoiled milk.
Wouldn’t it be great if you could just take a snapshot that would tell you what you need to know?
If we could take all those numbers, all that data and information, and put it into a format that communicates directly to the senses with immediacy and a sense of drama, even, it would be a lot easier to grasp what’s going on with our business. It would communicate immediately what all those numbers mean, and it would get the point across quickly in a way that people will remember.
Well, that’s where heat maps come in.
Heat maps collect data and apply them to an image that tells you right away what’s going on. If a grocery store manager wants to know where to place all the impulse buy items, they can take a look at the heat map to see how people are navigating the shop.
There will be a big red spot where people tend to linger, long paths showing which routes people tend to take through the store and so on. Everything they need to know to find out where people tend to be and how they move around the shop.
It’s not just for actual physical locations, of course. Game developers often use heat maps to see what their play testers are doing. Valve is famous for this, and they use the data to help them design video game levels that are easy to navigate. They can even use the heat maps to subvert player expectations.
For instance, they looked at where players were aiming and looking in their first person shooters and found that the typical player almost never looks up. This means that if there’s something important, then the level designer will typically place it at or below eye level, but, if they want to scare the player with an unexpected monster attack, they might have a bad guy hanging around on the ceiling like Spider-Man, or attacking from a second floor ledge.
This can of course apply to websites and digital applications. Imagine if a restaurant owner could tell where the customer’s eyes are lingering on the menu. They would know exactly where to place the pictures of deserts and other little indulgences based on how the customer reads the menu. This is hard to pull off on paper, of course, but they can actually take data from their website and see where the user’s mouse cursor is hovering, and use that data to help redesign their menus.
Heat maps can also be used to make more abstract data into something more literal and easy to read, like a pie chart. You can map out your products and create a heat map that will show what customers are buying and what isn’t really flying off the shelves with hot and cool spots. Almost anything you can do with raw numbers, you can apply it to a heat map to make something that’s a little easier to read.
There are a lot of practical applications possible for heat maps. We absolutely advise considering a heat map any time you’re putting a pitch together, for instance. If you want to convince a partner or a decision-maker in the company that your ideas are based on solid research, you can handle them pages and pages of numbers that they’re not going to read, and if they do, they won’t understand it.
Or, you can show them a picture that proves right away that people are buying more snacks at the concession stand in buildings where the concession stand is in plain view of the front door. Or that it’s a good idea to buy a billboard on Route 66.
It’s a good idea to keep heat maps around for your own use, as well. When rolling out a new marketing campaign or redesigning your store, pinning some heat maps up on your cork board can help you to keep relevant data at a glance so that you don’t have to pop open a binder or dig up a spreadsheet five folders deep on your laptop.
Heat maps are all about quick, accessible information, and more than that, it’s about putting the information into a form that will have an emotional impact.
Why do you think heat maps use red for the densest clusters of data?
Humans have a natural instinct to have an emotional response to the color red, dating back to our hunter gatherer days. This is why red is used so frequently in marketing for food. When you see red you think of McDonald’s, Coca-Cola and a dozen other brands. It’s because it reminds us of viable food sources from back when we were cavemen. It’s hard to make numbers emotionally impactful, but heat maps are one way to make that happen.
Heat maps have actually been in use for hundreds of years. Obviously it is much easier to create a heat map now when you can just pump the information into a computer and have the image automatically generated for you, but hand-sorted heat maps have been in use since the nineteenth century. They could be used to track population density when building a railroad or figuring out where you’re going to have success in mining or digging for oil
Even when they were a pain in the neck to put together, collecting data by hand, drawing an actual map and adding dots to represent points of information, they were still incredibly useful for getting points across quickly and keeping data in an immediately readable format.
Law enforcement has been using heat maps for decades in order to chart high-crime areas, doctors have been using it to map out the human body and disease outbreaks in a given area. Heat maps have been helping people to do important work more efficiently for more than one hundred years and counting.
What Can’t Heat Maps Do?
It’s actually difficult to imagine a type of data that a heat map can’t help to make more readable. Sometimes the situation may call for a pie chart or a timeline, but most data will fit into a heat map without much trouble. This does not mean that a heat map is always the optimal solution, but a heat map usually can get the job done.
Of course the real point here is that a picture really is worth a thousand words. Whether you need a timeline or a heat map, you’re going to get farther with a readable chart than with a bunch of numbers.
No matter what line of work you’re in, you should consider the effectiveness of pictures in getting your point across and keeping data in a format that’s easy to read at a glance. If you’re having trouble persuading partners and upper management to green light your new marketing campaign or product redesign, consider what pictures can do for you. Not just heat maps but diagrams and flow charts and so on.
Something that has to be grasped if you really want to get ahead in any field where you’re dealing with the human element: Most people aren’t that bright, and the ones that are are usually too lazy to bother thinking, and the ones that are both smart and not lazy, they just don’t have time for you. This is why you need to be able to put your message into a form that is easy to read, that is dramatic and immediate.
Trying to communicate a lot of information with words and numbers is like trying to move into a new apartment by putting a couple pieces of furniture in your Honda at a time and then driving across town.
Isn’t it better to just load up a big truck with everything and move it all at once?
That’s what image-based presentations do.
People can argue with data. If they misunderstand some of the math, they’ll be lost, and instead of asking you questions so that they can find their footing, they’re going to double down and insist that it’s not their reading of the numbers that’s wrong, it’s the numbers themselves that are wrong, and once you’ve crossed that threshold, there’s no going back. The harder you fight it, the more they’ll insist that you’ve made a mistake.
But it’s harder to argue with a picture. The simple fact that everyone is looking at the same image and getting the same message makes it difficult for anyone to misrepresent the information. We’re not talking about dumbing down the information itself. Anything you can put in a spreadsheet, you can put in a timeline and a heat map and a flow chart.
Rather, keep the information, express all the relevant points, but in a format that even a caveman could make sense of. We can’t all read spreadsheets, but we can all read a heat map.
Now that heat maps can be generated automatically, there’s really no reason not to put them to use. Whether you’re putting together a presentation to show to your marketing team or you just want to have some images for your own use when developing next year’s business plan, heat maps, along with charts and timelines, can go a long way to taking a complex message and putting it into a form that anyone can read at a glance.
Even if you’ve always been sort of an analytical person, you can’t escape human nature, and the human brain is designed to respond to images.