Humanizing the Big Numbers

This recent article from Fast Company provides some great examples of how to make the statistics of big numbers more meaningful to the average person. This is a great skill to hone. Relating events or ideas to common human experiences helps make these things more easy to to understand and leads to more productive discussions.The approach is similar to developing the “return on investment” for a business case. The more clearly you can show the benefits of a particular solution, the more likely you are to gain traction with the people you are trying to influence:

“A good statistic is one that aids a decision or shapes an opinion. For a stat to do either of those, it must be dragged within the everyday. That’s your job — to do the dragging. In our world of billions and trillions, that can be a lot of manual labor. But it’s worth it: A number people can grasp is a number that can make a difference.”

It is also similar to the concept of human scale in architecture. The design of things like stairs, steps, seats, doors, windows, railings, hallways, ceilings, tables and shelves are all influenced by the physical and sensory capabilities of human beings. You can play with this scale to make things appear either monumental or intimate but the range of variability is limited to what people can actually use. People find places designed for automobiles — like parking structures, arterial streets or big box retail stores — alien and uncomfortable. The same is true for numbers or statistics that fall outside the range of human comprehension.

So what is the “Goldilocks zone” for these measures? It depends on the metric, of course, but here are a few guidelines off the top of my head:

Too Big Too Small Just Right
Time Eon, Millennia Nanosecond Second, Minute, Hour, Month, Year
Distance Parsec, Light Year, Astronomical Unit Angstrom, Micron Inch, Foot, Yard, Mile, Centimeter, Meter, Kilometer
Temperature Planck temperature Absolute Zero Room Temperature
Mass/Weight* Solar Mass Atomic Mass Unit Ounce, Pound, Gram, Kilogram
Objects Star, Galaxy Molecule, Atom, Subatomic Particle Building, Car, Book, Tool
Electromagnetic Spectrum Radio Wave, Microwave Gamma Ray, X-ray Visible Light

* Yes, I know.


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