Consider the last time you made a decision with data. Chances are, you used some kind of visualization to help understand the bigger picture. In visualizations, color is often key; you use it to associate data with meaningful information like groups or categories.
Color choices can be a matter of personal preference for individuals and brand identity for organizations. But do the colors in analytics products–used to unearth answers from your data, make business decisions, and predict future opportunities–influence how people feel and perform? The team dedicated to the Analytics product at Salesforce has conducted research to determine if color influences how quickly and accurately users make decisions, as well as how people respond to colors via their first impressions and longer-term preferences and value judgments. The findings surprised us.
The Paradox Of Light And Dark Color Schemes
In one study, we examined how different foreground/background colors (“themes”) influence performance and preference. Before conducting our research, we guessed that the dark color theme would be more prominent and appealing to users. We had used the light theme for some time, and while it was familiar, we thought the novelty of the completely dark theme would spark new interest. However, we needed data to support this assertion.
We ran surveys with questions regarding first impression, preference, and value. To determine value, participants ranked charts by which would be worth the least or most if they had to pay for each type. To judge performance, we measured response time and accuracy for decisions made with charts rendered in different themes and palettes. We also used open text responses to better understand participants’ responses to the preference and value questions.
After conducting research, we discovered that participants generally preferred the lighter (and sometimes the hybrid) themes over the dark theme. Participants also had better first impressions of these themes, and saw them as having higher value–meaning they would be willing to pay more to use that type of chart.
Surprisingly though, the performance data from these same users revealed a different story, as users made decisions faster, and just as accurately, with charts displayed in the dark theme. As a result of this feedback, our general analytics products use light themes by default. We employ a hybrid theme in our analytics apps (created for more specific line of business goals) to help emphasize important information on the central “hero” chart(s) in the dashboard.
The Case Against Gradual Gradients
In another study, we examined how people responded to different color combinations (“palettes”) used in charts. We anticipated that people would have stronger preferences and value associations (ranking what charts they would pay most for) for palettes that represented shades of a common set of colors (e.g., a gradual gradient of blues and greens). This assumption was due to a sense that palettes with many different colors could be seen as less aesthetically appealing.
Participants in that study saw many charts rendered in six different color palettes, each designed to emphasize different aesthetic goals. Similar to the previous study, participants provided impression, preference, and value feedback, and their decision-making performance (speed and accuracy) was also captured.
To our surprise, we repeatedly found performance and preference benefits for the non-gradual gradient charts, compared to the palettes we expected to be more appealing. In the open feedback provided by users, a number of people acknowledged this phenomenon, sharing that they expected to like the more gradual gradient palettes, but ultimately found them difficult to use in some analytics contexts. The general consensus was that, while appealing, the subtle color variations made it more difficult to distinguish insights; the colors that were least appealing in terms of palette choice were easiest to read due to distinct color gradations.
As a result of this research, our default color palette for operational reports and dashboards, as well as charts in the Einstein Analytics platform, is one that includes mid-tone hues from around the color wheel.
Studies such as these help us validate our assumptions and inform our product teams in their decisions about aspects of the “default” user experience (though of course the color themes and palettes remain customizable). For designers, it’s a humble reminder that we don’t always know what users will actually prefer. Despite what we think is best for design and performance, data should be used as a guide to make informed decisions.
Steve Fadden is director of analytics UX research and Mark Geyer is creative director of analytics UX at Salesforce.