Alexander Pope said, “A little learning is a dangerous thing.” That has never been more true than today, when billions of bits of little information are just a few key strokes away. We’ve never had so much information – let alone visual information – available to us.  I mean, I know people who have done their entire investor pitch research on Pinterest. Pinterest, my friends. And there’s an infographic for just about everything now, from
to “Coin Collecting” 
 
We all know that just because it’s on the internet doesn’t make it true — but when we’re scrambling for information, we often forget that just because someone made it look pretty in Adobe Illustrator doesn’t make it true, either.  More importantly, it doesn’t make it useful.
 
In order to be useful, facts and statistics have to have context, be credible, be relevant to your situation and your customers. The majority of infographics you see are not about informing anyone. They don’t give enough context to be useful to most people. 



Take the “How to Spot a Liar” infographic to the left (you can view it larger online at http://s3.amazonaws.com/creattica/designs/images/48807/original/How_to_Spot_a_Liar.jpg). I’ve seen this one shared dozens of times. Here’s a sampling of user notes for this infographic on Pinterest:
 
“Soooo using this on my next blind date.”
“THIS would have been useful.”
“This is so cool! Totally looking out for these from now on.”
 
Here’s the thing: my husband is a human behavior expert and – he specializes in deception. He says the information in the infographic is useless. It’s mostly true and to some degree factual — he doesn’t contest that “60% of people lie at least one during a 10 minute phone conversation” or that “31% of people admit to lying on their resume.” And he admits that the list of common “Liar” behaviors is accurate if extremely rudimentary:  yes, a liar may speak without using contractions, and they may avoid eye contact or fidget with their ears or noses. And microexpressions can absolutely reveal the presence of deception or ulterior motives.
 
It’s also nearly impossible to see microexpressions without using a camera and slow motion. And even then, a trained professional will tell you that all of that study and work and practice will only produce a “best guess.”
 
They don’t mention that anywhere in all the pretty pictures and numbers.
 
That means that all of that accurate and factual information is still useless – and dangerous! – to someone who hasn’t been trained to use it properly.
 
That’s because the person or organization who made the infographic wasn’t trying to teach you how to spot a liar. Companies produce infographics to persuade their customers, and marketing/graphic design companies produce infographics to advertise their services to companies. Whomever made it was trying to show off their mad-graphic-design-skillz, or to draw attention to their brand or organization. In the first case, they found online source material containing easily visualized statistics and facts. In the second, they hired someone to produce something that would catch people’s interest, gain their trust, and be memorable.  Either way, they’re about impressing potential customers.  An infographic is a marketing tool.
 
From a research perspective, infographics are great for processing quantifiable factual information quickly.  They’re a valuable teaching tool for helping visual learners process facts and relationships. But they are not going to teach you new skills or make you an expert overnight. Their visual appeal does not compensate for lack of context and depth.  And they are never a replacement for real research.
 
So what are they good for? Here are 12 Tips for Using Infographics Wisely:
 
DO Use Infographics to …
 
1. Communicate facts and relationships to visual learners.  
They’re ideal substitutes for pages of text – especially when you need right brainers to process lots of information quickly and accurately. 
 
2. Translate flowcharts for industry novices and outsiders
Think of an infographic as the universal translator for flowcharts – free of jargon and special symbols. A good graphic artist can represent your system or process in an infographic that can be understood by just about anyone, regardless of industry. Consider using an infographic instead of a standard flowchart if you need to communicate a process to everyone from your janitor to the CEO.
 
3. Market your solutions and accomplishments to potential clients. 
Think of the infographic as a visual elevator speech. Use them to connect with customers by explaining the problem they face, the solution you provide, and what gives your organization the edge.
 
4. Point you toward potential research subjects
Infographics may not be reliable sources of information, but they are great resources for brainstorming research questions. You might list statistics to verify, trends to investigate, and processes to define. 
 
 
DON’T Use Infographics to…
 
1. …Do your market research.  
I see too many entrepreneurs use data from infographics as a substitute for real market research. They’ll spend weeks collecting factoids and nifty numbers to show investors and customers – but when you start asking questions, you realize that they’ve never actually spoken to a real person about any of it. And they’ve never done any independent research of their own to put the data in context. They’re just numbers until you know what they mean for *your* situation. Repeat after me: Infographics are information and facts without context
 
2. …Backup your investor pitch. 
Good investors are most definitely going to question your data and ask probing questions. They’ve all read (and lived!)  How to Lie with Statistics, and they can definitely spot a superficial explanation when they see one. Don’t risk looking like an idiot because you didn’t take the time to become an expert on your field. And if you’re collecting infographics for data, you aren’t ready to be asking for money from anyone.
 
3. …Learn something new. 
Remember, an infographic is information and facts without context. You may  learn that liars may not  use contractions — which is factual, if extremely rudimentary. But you won’t know how to tell the difference between a liar (who’s unconsciously avoiding them while they scramble hide their deception) and someone like my Dad (who spent so many years writing military briefs and academic papers that he rarely uses contractions when doing business). Remember – context.context.context.
 
4. Compensate for your weaknesses
“…Like putting lipstick on a pig” is an old saying that still applies in modern business. Don’t use infographics a crutch to hide your weak spots or distract others. It’s always better to answer an investor or customer with “We’re still in the early stages of planning and don’t know that answer yet,” or “I’m not sure, but we’ll keep researching.”  Anything else shows a lack of respect for your customer – and they’ll see right through it.
 
 
How to Evaluate an Infographic
 
1. Who published it? If it’s about growing strawberries, was it published by a gardening guru, a university extension office, or a graphic designer? Their goals and motives should influence how you evaluate the graphic for biases. The gardening guru is probably trying to draw attention to their books, website, or classes — they’re likely an specialist trying to market and brand their business. University extension offices provide expert advice and resources for free or low-cost to local communities – anything they produce is focused on providing expert advice for common isses.. A graphic design is likely not an expert, and is using information and statistics they found online. The information may still be credible and current, but you’ll need to do more research to verify it. If you can’t identify the creator, publisher, and/or source of the infographic, it’s not a reliable source. Remember: If you wouldn’t let an amateur operate on your heart, don’t take advice from unknowns on the internet.
 
2. What is the source material?  Does the infographic cite articles, studies, or other research to back up its data? Can you connect the data listed to the works cited? Be sure to check any links listed to make sure that they are current and from credible sources. Many infographics reference content generating e-zine sites  – but these pages may be written by anyone and their information is rarely vetted by experts.
 
3. What are their biases? Consider the source material in context. What biases or motives might have influenced how they presented or used this data? Was the source a study by a politically affiliated think tank? Is it connected to any commercial or retail businesses? Does the source material discuss anything else that affects how you understand the data?
 
4. Can I independently verify its claims? If an infographic claims that 31% of people lie on their resumes, then Google  31% people lie resumes and see what comes up. If you can’t find another source to back up the infographic, disregard the statistic and keep researching.  
 
 
Sounds like a lot, doesn’t it? That’s the thing: research is a beast. There aren’t any shortcuts. There’s no quick-fix for making sure your information is solid. Infographics can lead you to great sources and interesting data. But, like any data, you have to verify and analyze it to mitigate your risk.
This article originally appeared on The Quality Girl blog. Republished with permission from the author.

A physicist by trade, author by choice, a born teacher, a retired veteran, and an adamant problem solver, Frank has helped the White House, federal agencies, military offices, historical museums, manufacturers, and over 250 technology startups get stuff done, communicate effectively, and find practical solutions that work for them. In his spare time, he makes sawdust and watches Godzilla movies.