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I want to display datasets with a field called "criticality". This field should contain either a digit from 1 to 3 or texts like "High", "Medium", "Low". What do you think, which representation is faster for cognitive processing?

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According to both earlier answers I suggest that using a combination of color patterns and numbers may be a right solution.

As @Peter said:

Additionally you can use colors for the different states. Colors are perceived faster than text.

You can use a traffic lights color state to indicate the high, medium and low states of the corresponding value of your numbers.

Take a look at this example (try to replace your data and the states with yours):

enter image description here

So maybe by using data-ranges and colors, you are getting to the right solution.

  • +1 for colors. That's by far the best to tell instantly. Alternatively shapes, such as a block of varying sizes. – Keavon May 27 '14 at 4:38
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    Just be wary of only using red vs. green. Something like 1-5% of the population are color blind... – Alex Feinman May 27 '14 at 16:09
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There's always ambiguity to a numeric scale, e.g. is DEFCON 1 or DEFCON 5 the most heightened state of readiness for the military? (Hollywood often gets this wrong, by the way) A class 1 cleanroom is cleaner than a class 10 clean room, but a BSL 4 lab has more safeguards than a BSL 3 lab.

Outside of cases where the numbers correspond to a very specific definition that users have been trained on, succinct words like "High", "Medium", and "Low" are unambiguous and don't require the user to remap them to an intuitive scale.

  • Note though, that if you have a lot of choices, the words start to become problematic because the intermediate terms tend to get confusing. So be careful. – Michael Kohne May 26 '14 at 19:22
  • If you get into the "lots of choices" range where there may be 10 (or even 5) severities, unless you have specific definitions the distinctions between "Severity: 6" and "Severity: 7" rapidly become meaningless. – Nick T May 26 '14 at 19:42
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I think you have to use text, because you don´t have to interpret them. Numbers are symbolic. You have to learn the meaning behind them.

But choose for the three states other terms like:

  • High → Very high
  • Medium → Significant
  • Low → Low

Additionally you can use colors for the different states. Colors are perceived faster than text.

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    Why would you break up the very natural sounding High/Medium/Low? "Very high" vs. "significant" is just confusing – Nick T May 26 '14 at 19:44
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It depends on what words are available to indicate magnitude, but generally for 5 or less I'd generally go with text (low, medium-low, medium, medium-high, high).

If there are more magnitudes than clear, descriptive words, go with numbers, but add a text qualifier to the max and min numbers:

1 (least critical)
2 
3 
4 
5 
6 
7 
8 
9 
10 (most critical)

Or you could add a simple explanation at the top or bottom of the number list: 1 is least critical, 10 is most critical.

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