Conveying Information Through Design

US News & World Report have just released their Best Hospitals: 2004 rankings. This is a pretty big thing for America’s hospitals, something akin to the health Oscars.

Aside from the fact that in the report they have broken URLs for a number of the hospital web sites and they even have one hospital’s name wrong (they missed out the “Regional” from “Children’s Hospital and Regional Medical Center“), I found it interesting to see how something as small as an inappropriately designed icon could cause considerable confusion (love that alliteration!) given the context in which it was being used.

Let me explain. When I went to the page for my hospital, I saw this:

“That’s odd,” I thought. “I could have sworn we were 19th last year, so why is it showing that we have dropped down to 16th when, in fact, we went up?”

So I looked at another page to see if it might shed any light on the matter.

“Bloody hell,” I thought. “Either they’ve dropped in every category, which is hard to believe, or some bright spark has used perhaps the most inappropriate graphic I’ve ever seen to highlight a heading on a web page, given the subject matter being presented.”

A quick look at the page for the #1 ranked hospital confirmed that the latter was true:

After all, you can’t drop down to the #1 position. If it wasn’t for the fact that I knew that Children’s, Seattle had moved from 19th to 16th, I would have been totally fooled by the use of this graphic.

I could easily imagine less informed visitors to the site thinking that the hospital they were looking at had dropped in rankings across the board – scary!

Edward Tufte would have a field day.