Show that a higher or lower number is better

This post is similar to another of mine, but going in a different direction.

The problem: How can we show that a higher number or a lower number is better? For example, suppose we have a percentage, 20%. Perhaps in this case, the higher the percentage, the better. However, in another case, using the same units, a lower percentage is better. What is a simple way to convey this information without changing the data?

Example: 20% of students understand the material (higher is better) vs. 20% of students are consistently late to class (lower is better).

Notes: The solution must fit into a uni-color flat design and should be simple and intuitive, without adding text. I'm looking for a way to show that the number should go up or down, not that it is already moving up or down.

Ideas?

• If you weren't tied to the uni-color constraint, I'd suggest a scale of colors where green=good, red=bad. A green 20% indicates that is better, whereas a red 20% means it's bad. I think that's pretty easily understood but it does't fit into your one color constraint. May 22, 2014 at 15:28
• Seriously, again, without text? What number in the World makes sense without context? May 22, 2014 at 15:42
• It has to be a) intuitive but also 1) one color 2) without text? Those are some pretty daunting requirements. I suppose that leaves you with iconography.
– DA01
May 22, 2014 at 16:44
• @ user43251 I didn't say there wasn't context. Each percentage can be listed on a dashboard next to a description. What I'm looking for here is a way to visually distinguish the intended direction of the number so that a user doesn't have to read the text. May 23, 2014 at 13:09

A possible solution is to repackage these numbers so that users can consistently expect higher or lower to be better.

For example 20% of students understand the material and 20% of students are consistently late could be

20% of students understand the material and 80% of students are consistently on time (both numbers are good and in this case teachers want to aim to get both of those numbers to 100)

OR

80% of students don't understand the material and 20% of students are consistently late (both numbers are bad and you'd want to get both of those to 0)

This way users can have a uniform expectation of what direction is good and bad with the percentages.

• This would be an excellent solution if the data could be altered like this, but in the case of my problem, it cannot. The reason is that the numerator and denominator have specific meaning to the description, and the description cannot be changed. May 23, 2014 at 13:11

Maybe a change in approach could help, rather than pointing out that the numbers should be higher or lower to be better or worse you could point out whether the current statistic is positive or negative. To keep it short and simple a thumbs up or thumbs down next to the stats could solve this problem. For example 20% of students understand material (thumbs down icon) where as 75% of students understand material (thumbs up icon) and if you're at 50% you could put some sort of neutral icon. This would indicate whether or not the statistic was on the positive or negative side of the spectrum. Just an idea, hope it helps.

• The problem with this solution is that you're introducing bias into the data. I don't want to say at what percentage the data is good or bad. I only want to say which direction is good or bad. May 23, 2014 at 13:13