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Here’s an idea to make government websites better: Stop listening.

Yes, it seems like a good idea to ask people what they actually want when designing your online home, but the reality is things like focus groups and consumer research often muddle the picture, said Edward Tufte, a professor at Yale and Princeton known as the da Vinci of data visualization for his teachings on information design.

Tufte, speaking this morning at the State Department’s Tech@State Data Visualization Conference at the Kennedy Center, recalled Apple’s Steve Jobs when he showed the first iPad to a group of reporters before it’s launch. When asked if the company did consumer research, Jobs answered, “It’s not the user’s job to design the stinking thing.”

(For the record, Tufts said Jobs likely didn’t use the word stinking and maybe something a little more authoritative.)

“Feature-itis has swamped more government projects than anything else,” Tufts said. “It seems like a good idea to involve the users, but they end up giving a list of countless features they think they want, but then never end up using and that ruins the end product.”

Tufte advocates the Apple approach for government sites, and all sites in general, by zeroing out the interface with minimal scrollbars and menus to free up space for data and information. The idea is that the human eyes and brain can take in a lot more information than developers give it credit for.

“Our eyes will find what it’s looking for,” Tufte said.

And for Apple’s touch-screen mentally with low-interface, Tufts predicts in a few years we will all be moving our fingers like classically trained pianists across the screens.

A few others notes from Tufte’s presentation:

  • Government can find inspiration for data visualization in an odd place: the sports page. ESPN presents 15 to 20 times more data on a screen than the typical government page.
  • For other good examples of data visualization check out Google News and The New York Times who try to present as much information as possible all at once and let the users figure it out.
  • Speaking of users, Tufte notes only two industries call their customers users: software makers and illegal drug distributors.
  • When it comes to the presentation of data if it’s too good to be true than it probably is. Organizations can cherry pick the data they present to make their case, so always look for the original data set the information came from. If the organization can’t – or won’t – produce it than its probably cherry picked.
  • If you want to stop that problem for your organization, always present the data you used and get it verified by an outside non-biased source to alleviate concerns.