Dashboards represent concepts and management tools, and the idea is one we revisit from time to time, because it’s so important to find ways of presenting your data that explain it and lead to action. We’ve also found that a picture tells a thousand words, and help persuade in a more compelling manner. Here, we bring together the two ideas, dashboards and pictures, to talk about visual storytelling.
Managing the data explosion
There is a data explosion under way. Companies have a mass of data at their command, telling them everything they need to know, and the technology to present it all. But our brains can’t take in millions of bits of information all at once. The human brain works best given smaller numbers in smaller doses.
Try this trick. Show a friend or colleague seven or eight small empty squares laid out side by side, like a crossword grid, just for a couple of seconds. Take away the picture, then ask how many were there. Now try it in one chunk of three boxes, and one of four. They will almost certainly be unsure how many were there the first time, and absolutely certain the second. Why? Two reasons. First, our brains can deal with the smaller number of images, and second, the number is shown more visually in the second, and we can process it much faster.
Zach Gemignani, CEO and co-founder of Juice Analytics, likens data visualisation, or using pictures to help you understand difficult data, as your ‘life raft in an ocean of Big Data’. Data visualisation has also been described as visual storytelling, the idea that you use your data to tell a story, through pictures and interactive content.
Consider this little piece of data visualisation, from the NY Times, about the words used during the Republican Presidential campaign. The front page consists of speech bubbles, one each for each of the key words of the campaign, such as families, work, jobs, and success. Each one is sized according to the number of times it was used during speeches by key opinion-formers in the party. But click on any one speech bubble, and you get a sampling of the individual speeches mentioning that word. In just these few speech bubbles, we can see clearly which issues were most important to the campaign speakers, and so get a real feel for the campaign’s intended emotional impact. By drilling down, we can see exactly what was being said.
But how do you choose what data to use and how to present it? Three key lessons to data visualisation from experience pave the way:
- First consider your audience. The question they will be asking is how can this data help me? It needs to have a personal impact for your intended audience to engage. It’s also helpful if it leads to clear action.
- Pick the right chart for the right situation. Storytelling helps people to understand data, and dynamic interactions make it more relevant to each person.
- Keep it simple. A straightforward, clear presentation of data is much more compelling than an overcrowded sheet that’s impossible to understand. Colour-coding helps to make things clearer.
Presenting data is not a technology problem. It’s a social one. It’s about how we understand and explain things to each other. More technology does not solve human-to-human communication, it makes it paradoxically both easier and more difficult. Data management apps can lead to more confusion. Or they can cut through the difficulty, and act as a funnel to present information more helpfully.
From dashboards to stories
Over time, data analytics tools have evolved, from IT tools to business tools, and at the same time from being ways of analysing data to ways of presenting it. We used to have basic IT platforms that held all the data, but you had to work out for yourself how to extract and use the information. Moving up through dashboards and reporting, and visual analytics, we’re reaching a point where we can talk about data storytelling: a way of presenting the results of the analysis to the business. And there are plenty of tools out there to help you at each step, whether you’re looking for help with data gathering, data analysis or data presentation.
Being right is not enough, you have also to be able to persuade others. Data visualisation, or visual storytelling, offers a way to ensure that your data and analytical insights are available to a wider audience in a way that speaks to them.