Designing Visual Aids That Promote Risk Literacy: A Systematic Review of Health Research and Evidence-Based Design Heuristics


Background Effective risk communication is essential for informed decision making. Unfortunately, many people struggle to understand typical risk communications because they lack essential decision-making skills. Objective The aim of this study was to review the literature on the effect of numeracy on risk literacy, decision making, and health outcomes, and to evaluate the benefits of visual aids in risk communication. Method We present a conceptual framework describing the influence of numeracy on risk literacy, decision making, and health outcomes, followed by a systematic review of the benefits of visual aids in risk communication for people with different levels of numeracy and graph literacy. The systematic review covers scientific research published between January 1995 and April 2016, drawn from the following databases: Web of Science, PubMed, PsycINFO, ERIC, Medline, and Google Scholar. Inclusion criteria were investigation of the effect of numeracy and/or graph literacy, and investigation of the effect of visual aids or comparison of their effect with that of numerical information. Thirty-six publications met the criteria, providing data on 27,885 diverse participants from 60 countries. Results Transparent visual aids robustly improved risk understanding in diverse individuals by encouraging thorough deliberation, enhancing cognitive self-assessment, and reducing conceptual biases in memory. Improvements in risk understanding consistently produced beneficial changes in attitudes, behavioral intentions, trust, and healthy behaviors. Visual aids were found to be particularly beneficial for vulnerable and less skilled individuals. Conclusion Well-designed visual aids tend to be highly effective tools for improving informed decision making among diverse decision makers. We identify five categories of practical, evidence-based guidelines for heuristic evaluation and design of effective visual aids.