Pattern Recognition

by Luke Wroblewski August 14, 2006

In a recent conversation about future considerations for product design, Jim Leftwich noted the importance of pattern recognition for being able to understand the implications of “known and foreseeable technologies and trends” in the future:

“I think a lot of this comes down to one's innate ability to perceive patterns. Clearly some people are better at picking up on and extrapolating from perceived patterns (even complex patterns). This is no different from some people being able to figure in their heads, or have extraordinary memories, etc., which are also mental abilities. We can measure those capabilities. We can't so clearly measure things like one's ability to perceive patterns (and then utilize that effectively)...” –Jim Leftwich

Which reminded me of a passage from Steven Johnson’s Everything Bad is Good for You in which the author describes a set of assessment tests (most notably the Raven Progressive Matrices test) used to measure “fluid” or general intelligence (g).

“Tests that measure g often do away with words and numbers, replacing them with questions that rely exclusively on images, testing the subjects ability to see patterns…” –Steven Johnson

In a Raven test, you can’t rely on memorizing facts and equations. All the information is “presented in visual language” and you succeed by “detecting patterns in each object, by separating the relevant information from the irrelevant”. Which of course, makes me think about the process of information design.

Consider an example from Edward Tufte’s Visual Explanations that walks through an analysis and redesign of the information presentation that could have prevented NASA’s 1986 Challenger disaster. In his final design, Tufte clearly communicates the patterns within existing data by separating out relevant information through a hierarchical visual narrative.

Perhaps the Raven tests are a potential way to grow the information design aptitude of individuals? To dissect and present information the way Tufte did? One thing that is certain is that in our world of ever increasing information, pattern recognition and visual communication are traits that continue to grow in importance.