How to lie* with animated infographics: the SCAMM model

Forgive me; I used to be a corporate trainer. I enjoy acronyms and easy, bite-sized chunks that can be absorbed quickly by busy people at work. Which is why, when a client asked me last week “what’s the best way to use animated infographics to..um…bend the truth a little?”, I immediately came up with a model; an acronym.

I fully acknowledge that there are much deeper thinkers about this, and some excellent writing. Have a look at this by Randy Olson or this powerful piece by Mushon Zer-Aviv. But I like my model, simple as it is, and I’ve had good feedback on it. Of course, when I’ve time I’ll do an animation of it, but for now here’s the summary:

Scale – if it’s important, make it bigger. I’ve seen in usability trials many times how people have problems assessing relative scale on screen. So if you want to say that a drug is 3 times more powerful, animate the dot that represents it so that it’s 4-5 times larger than its comparators but label it “3x”. The emotional impact will over-ride the objective assessment. Job done.

Colour – the meaning of colour varies in different cultures, so take care. But if you’re designing for a North American or European audience, you surely know that red signifies danger, black is “bad”, green is “good”, orange is “happy”…and so on. It’s common sense. Use this. Good news that starts animating in bold red type often doesn’t feel quite so good; your competitor’s sales performance presented as the only black bar in a colourful bar chart can feel bit tarnished...

Axes – your product share is tiny, and growing slowly – let’s say, from 7% to 8%. No problem! Animate a graph showing product share doubling, carefully avoiding to label the X axis as 7%. Nobody will know…The thing is, there are axes all over a typical animated infographic, not just on formal graphs. People often don’t check where zero is, or what the maximum values are. Let them make assumptions…

Music – (this applies to sound effects as well…). I think it was Felix Mendelssohn who pointed out that music can bypass our rational barriers and thoughts. So, vaguely positive news shown over stirring orchestral strings can feel world-changing; a mildly negative piece of data carefully timed and presented over grinding electronic noise can feel catastrophic. The key is in the timing and synchronisation; pushing the story of the infographic along, and building on its emotional tone.

Motion – there is a host of little tricks you can apply to deceive your user with motion. But something I’ve seen done very effectively is to use subtle movement “into” the screen to imply weakness and distance (your competitor is “shrinking”). Similarly, you can imply discomfort through gentle oscillations (which also reduces legibility), and strength through subtle movement towards the screen. OK, it’s not “lying” as such, but it can certainly help to bend the truth.

So that’s it!

Now I’ll take my tongue out of my cheek and warn you to beware of these, and many other similar tricks. The world is awash with animated infographics many of which attempt to convey less than the truth. Take care!

* without using data that is incorrect