Review: Looking back: a century of Dutch statistics

If you love looking at wonderful information design, you’ll enjoy this book of the month: Looking back: a century of Dutch statistics by CBS Statistics Netherlands.

It’s in English and it’s free as a .pdf download, or you can pay a small fee for a printed copy.

So far this year I’ve chosen survey books that are about information, either key concepts or practical how-to. This month’s book is about inspiration.

How I learned about this book

I’ve just left the 5th Internet Survey Methodology Workshop, hosted by Statistics Netherlands at the Hague. This series of workshops brings together many of the most distinguished and influential survey researchers and methodologists, from academia and from national statistical institutions (NSIs) world-wide, plus a sprinkling of practitioners from market research.

I was there because Zoë Dowling, VP – R&D & Offer Innovation, Added Value US (part of the Kantar Group), was reporting on Kantar’s usability testing programme, and I’ve been helping with that. We found a lot of interest in usability testing of surveys, with the NSIs also making it a routine part of their work alongside cognitive interviewing, and also working out when and how to use eye-tracking as part of their programmes of testing.

Statistics Netherlands gave the workshop participants copies of their 2011 statistical yearbook, and of “Looking back: a century of Dutch statistics”. The statistical yearbook is nicely produced and has a couple of hundred pages of facts and figures about everything about the Netherlands from Accommodation to Youth. But it was “Looking back” that I found really inspiring.

Your survey is judged by how you report

Let’s assume that you’re getting to the end of your survey process. You’ve done nearly all the hard work:

  • made sure that you had clear objectives
  • thoroughly understood the target audience you want to reach and what they want to tell you
  • produced a clear, concise set of questions
  • built a questionnaire that looks appealing and works like a dream
  • tested the heck out of everything
  • got those questionnaires to the right users and had a wonderful response
  • worked out what your collected data is telling you.

Phew! Tempted to sink back, exhausted, and have a nice rest? If the only person who needs to know the results is you, then of course you are finished and you can indeed relax.

But for most of us, there is one last crucial step, without which all that effort will be wasted: get the results to the people who need to act on them.

In other words: whether or not the survey is a success overall depends on how well you report your results.

Great reports have great information design

So that brings us to “Looking Back” from Statistics Netherlands. They’ve been gathering data and running surveys for over 100 years, and the book was their opportunity both to celebrate that and to tell the world about their work. They had an enormous amount of information to choose from; for example, the array of publications listed on the Statistics Netherlands website. In their position, I might have been tempted to issue a massive tome, a compendium of every possible fact. Instead, they opted for reporting on just 21 topics in 6 areas.

Each topic gets a double-paged spread, with:

  • a headline that summarises the topic
  • a graph
  • three or four crisply written paragraphs of explanatory text
  • a single illustration, photograph, or key quote from the text

The whole book reminds me of Giles Colborne’s lovely little book Simple and usable: Web, mobile, and interaction design.

Lessons for reporting

I realise that few of us will need to write a report about, say, agricultural statistics. But I’m going to keep my copy of this book by my side to refer to when I’m next writing a report, and ask myself these questions:

  • How can I sum up this result in a four- or five-word headline?
  • Can I show this data in a simple graph?
  • Can I cut the explanatory text to a maximum of four paragraphs?
  • What illustration, photograph, or key quote will grab my readers’ attention here?