Word Clouds - why they're rubbish... and what to do instead

(This is a brief email written back in February 2016, just when Word Clouds were all the rage. Fast forward to February 2021 and I rarely see them now - thank goodness. Also, notice that this email is brief... Word Clouds are so bad, it takes no more than two or three paragraphs to explain their flaws. Enjoy.)  


Recently, I was told yet again that we grasp visuals more easily than words. Yet the person told me this in words, not with visuals. Ironic. OK, that’s a cheap shot, but there are many cheap shots on this topic. It’s a cheap shot to say that visuals are better than dull text - if we compare something to a bad alternative, we can justify most things. Would you rather read a riveting novel, or look at dull art?

If visuals are better than words, what about visual words? After all, people tell me that WiT is visual. So are Word Clouds – a computer counts the number of times that words appear in a report or speech (it ignores words like the and and), then shows it all in a groovy way. Figure 1 is a Word Cloud of the WiT Chapter of my book. More frequent words are bigger, less frequent are smaller. And look! The word WiT appears a lot.

World Clouds are creeping into monthly packs and business reports – “We asked staff to describe us in one word, and here is a Word Cloud of the less offensive words they said”. You get the idea. Useful? No. Useless. We glance at Word Clouds, but struggle to engage with them. Frippery attracts us to them, but distracts us from their content. Not convinced? Try Figure 2, it's a Word Cloud of last week's Premier League positions. It's nuts. Call me old-fashioned, but if you want an idea of frequency, popularity or position, do something called a 'table'.

That's it, really. The case against Word Clouds.

However, since you're here, here's a bit more on 'visuals'.

Maybe a fake statistic helps justify visuals. I've heard that we process visuals 60,000 times faster than text. Sounds scientific. Authentic. Real. But someone called Kathleen Gossman has tried to find the proof behind the stat and found nothing, save for a reference to it in a sales brochure for 3M. Unfortunately, the brochure neither mentions nor offers any proof. Let her (and me) know if you uncover anything. And remember: 68% of stats are made up. (And I just made that up - but do quote it on the internet if you want...)

Finally, if you've heard that we remember 10% of what we read, 20% of what we hear, 30% of what we see, etc, here's an article I wrote in 2011, the first bit of which addresses that myth.


Clarity and Impact Ltd I +44 20 8840 4507 | jon@jmoon.co.uk | www.jmoon.co.uk

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