Numberstand

Research · Concept · UI Design · Mobile Web Development

2014

tl;dr

An app that explains incomprehensible large numbers to you, using amounts you're familiar with. Numberstand is my graduation research project for the Media Technology MSc. program.

Goals

  • Understanding and explaining why and what aspects of large numbers are incomprehensible. Also proposing a solution to overcome this human limitation.
  • Graduating from my Masters studies by publishing a solid research project and creating an impactful digital prototype.

Process

I noticed there is a problem with understanding large numbers and found that subject very interesting to focus on for my graduation reseach project.

The problem with large numbers

On 31 July 2012 the largest power outage in history affected over 620 million people living in India. In January of this year Google purchased Nest for $3.2 billion (Roughly €2.4 billion) A few weeks after that Facebook continued its rage against Snapchat and bought WhatsApp for $19 billion (Roughly €14 billion). And at the time of this writing, Wikipedia has published over 4.5 million articles in the English language.

These are just a few examples of the large puzzling numbers we encounter quite often. I feel frustrated of media that carelessly throw such numbers at me. It simply doesn’t communicate any valuable message. A few million people more or a couple of billion dollars less, it doesn’t matter a thing. It mainly causes reactions limited to: ’Wow, that’s a lot’. Nevertheless, the number remains hard to envision. This is due to the fact that our numerical sense is insufficiently developed to conceive such large numbers. It seems that the larger a number is, the less accurate our mental representation is and the less we are able to comprehend such numbers.

As big as 50 football fields

These days, in several media you encounter analogies. Using analogies is a good first step and might help some people to envision large quantities. Examples of such analogies: “100 acres is equal to 50 football fields.” and: “25 million people is about three times the population of New York City.”

But to be honest, I have never seen 50 football fields together at once and it’s quite hard to imagine (and I’m not alone in this one). At the time, I also never visited NYC before, so I actually have no clue how big of a city it is and how many people live there. These types of explanations don’t really clarify much for me.

Graphics are not always suitable

Infographics are also quite commonly used to clarify one or several numbers at once. While there sure are a lot of good examples, it is not suitable in every situation and for every medium. Moreover, these visuals are more often than not, very badly designed. It is better to stay away from the art of infographic design rather than publishing a really bad one.

Personalized explanations

The continuing lack of understanding with solely communicated large numbers or numbers explained using an analogy or infographics, made me thinking:

’’Why not explain numbers on a personal level using quantities someone is familiar with?’’

So I created a web application prototype called Numberstand that gathers and uses personal information to explain incomprehensible large numbers.

Numberstand

The app gathers personal data trough a questionnaire, e.g.: the birthplace, family size, monthly rent paid, valuable belongings and recurring expenses. To convert a number, you select a number category, either a money amount or a number of people. Next, you enter any number you want to understand. The app then tries to calculate the number using all the personal data combined with the population datasets of countries in the world (Source: CIA World Factbook) and of provinces and cities in The Netherlands (source: Wikipedia). By multiplying this information it can come up with explanations such as “778 million Euros is equal to everyone living in your city buying an iMac.”

The future of number explanations

The example of €778 million (About $1 billion) originated in Dutch news items reporting on the fine given to a large bank. To explain this number using the value of someone’s computer or the monthly rent paid might help a bit, but it would be better to put it in the context of the bank. Some said it wasn’t that much of a pain to the bank but no one explained why. To really understand the impact of big numbers we need to put it in a fair context. In this example it would be beneficial to automatically calculate the impact using the banks’ net worth, the monthly revenue, the number of clients worldwide or even the number of employees.

In fact, it is about a third of the yearly profit. Also, it costs the bank about €390 for every client. It is equal to giving a bonus of about €15.000 to every employee. Maybe it is earned back within a month because of all the return on investments.

Such types of explanation give way more insight in large numbers. We have to break the numbers down into understandable portions and use meaningful accompanying facts to put large numbers in the right context.

What else can we do?

What do you think of these solutions? What else can we do and what are other ways to automate the explanations? I'd love to hear from you!

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