Research Impact


Improving operations and outcomes through an understanding of visual information

Dr Chia-Jung Tsay and her colleagues examined how visual or operational transparency may be leveraged to create value for organisations.

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28 April 2022

Dr Chia-Jung Tsay, at the UCL School of Management, has examined the dominance of visual information in judgement about performance, including initial tests of the impact of visual cues, assessment of generalisability and consequences of the dependence on visual cues, and how the vision heuristic and visual transparency can be leveraged to create value for organisations. 

In 2019, Dr Tsay led UCL efforts to collaborate with the UK’s Behavioural Insights Team (BIT), coinciding with BIT’s efforts to apply the concepts of transparency in their field work. BIT is an international think tank originally set up within the UK Cabinet Office, that applies behavioural insights to inform policy, improve services, address social problems, and deliver results for people and communities. 

The concept of transparency 

In line with BIT’s work with the NHS mental health programme Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT), BIT aimed to utilise the concept of “transparency” as conceptualized by Tsay and colleagues’ research, to help provide a solution to a common NHS problem where 1.4 million people were referred to IAPT (in 2016/2017), 3 in 5 people did not complete a course of treatment. By allowing people to become more aware of the process of their treatment, BIT found patients became more likely to attend follow up treatment appointments, were less likely to drop out of treatment, and attended more appointments on average. Using the concept of transparency allowed improvements and greater efficiency in the provision of mental health services. BIT estimated that where the low-cost intervention could be scaled up, it could result in an additional 14,000 patients per year completing follow up appointments.  

As a consequence of this finding by BIT, in January 2020, IAPTUS (a patient management software firm specialising in psychological therapies), announced a new product to their patient management system, “Scheduled Bulk SMS,” which would allow users to automatically send text massages to all patients the day after their referral. IAPTUS noted in a press release that “carefully crafted text messages to patients between referral and first appointment can be used to increase engagement and reduce DNAs (Did Not Attend),” whilst highlighting “the standard cost of sending each SMS is typically recouped in the saving of just one or two missed appointments”, providing the opportunity to relieve financial pressure on NHS trusts. 

International developments  

The work on transparency has also been further developed by colleagues worldwide. For example, it has even been shown to increase people’s trust in organisations and settings that otherwise would garner low trust. For example, the Pew Research Center indicates that only 20% of Americans report trusting the government to do the right thing. A Harvard Business School group collaborated with the City of Boston, following 21,786 residents and their engagement with a smartphone application that submits service requests to the city government’s Public Works Department. By leveraging the concept of transparency and showing visual images of work being requested and performed, people became more trusting and supportive of the Boston city government. Importantly, citizen engagement increased, resulting in a 60% increase in the number of requests made monthly. This work cites both the vision heuristic and operational transparency research. 

The stream of research on the power of visual information and transparency has garnered wide public interest, with coverage in media outlets in over 50 countries. 

Research synopsis

Improving healthcare, service, and government operations and outcomes through an understanding of visual information and transparency 

Dr Chia-Jung Tsay has developed a programme of research to investigate how visual information factors into decision making processes. Tsay and her colleagues have examined how visual or ‘operational transparency’ may be leveraged to create value for organisations.