Can’t see the wood for the trees?

There is an Aborigine tribe whose counting system only has words for “one”, “two” and “many”. I was reminded of this earlier in the week when I passed an electronic sign (pictured) on the outskirts of Worcester which tells drivers how many car parking spaces are available at the main car parks in the city. It made me wonder whether the information on the sign was too detailed. Do I need to know exactly how many spaces there are in each car park?
I then started to think about business information and whether this can also be too detailed sometimes. And what are the downsides of excessive detail? I think there are three areas of risk:
Data gathering – probably obvious, but gathering higher levels of detail is generally going to take more time and money. However, in some instances for example where the information is collected mechanically rather than by a person, it may have to be collected at a very detailed level.
Sharing & reporting – creating reporting systems that offer a high level of detail is usually going to be more complex and expensive. Creating the reports can also be more time-consuming.
The first two risks are probably the best understood as the ‘costs’ of too much detail are usually borne by those responsible for collecting and sharing it. By contrast, the third area of risk, is in my experience the least appreciated, and potentially the most damaging. When we receive excessive detail, a number of things can happen. Firstly, we get drawn into the detail and lose our ability to “see the wood for the trees”. Secondly, we may start to doubt the credibility of the data; sometimes a high level of detail can look false, causing us to doubt the quality, timeliness of even the methods used to collect the information. Worst of all, when faced with too much detail we may just decide not to read it at all!
How can we work out the ‘right’ level of detail? To me, it seems that as with marketing communications, we need to start with the ‘customer’ and work back. Too often, excessive detail is provided “just because we can”. If you can answer these three questions, I think it will help determine how much detail is required:
1. Who is it for?
2. What might they do as a result of receiving information on this particular metris – what are their options?
3. How much detail do they need to make a good choice from these options?
To return to the car park information signs then; the audience is me, the driver. The decision I need to make is which car park to go to. When I’m on the outskirts of Worcester, approximately 5-15 minutes away from the car parks in question, the only information I need is whether each car park is full, nearly full or has lots of spaces. Perhaps the signs could be modified so that instead of telling me exactly how many spaces there are, they simply say “None”, “Few” or “Lots”