The old adage goes “a picture is worth a thousand words”. However, in these times of decreasing budgets and shrinking resources perhaps the adage should be tweaked a bit to “a picture is worth a thousand dollars”.
As we embark into an uncertain future knowing that we’ll have to make due with less, transforming data into information is paramount our success. Likewise, transforming that information into a quickly digestible format is even more critical, as being able to make quick decisions with as much precision as possible has become an absolute necessity. This process is known as Data Visualization.
Data visualization is a quick, easy way to convey concepts in a universal manner. Through use of Data Visualization, I’ve seen departments operate more efficiently as they’re now able to see large amounts of data in clear, cohesive ways – and draw conclusions from that information. Since it’s significantly faster to analyze information in graphical or visual format, departments can address problems, identify trends, or answer questions in minutes that in the past may have taken days, if not weeks.
Data visualization is not a new concept. Harkening back to ancient Egypt with the use of hieroglyphics, and the age of exploration with maps, images have always been able to quickly and succinctly convey information to the user when done properly. However, when not done right, it can create confusion and frustration for the person trying to follow along.
Before you undertake the task of turning your raw data into useful visual information, you should consider the following concepts:
1) Understand the data you’re trying to visualize – As the data person, it’s likely that you will have a much higher level of expertise regarding the raw data than anyone else (i.e. where the data comes from, what it means etc.). It’s critical that you have a high level understanding of the raw data before transforming it to tell any kind of a story. After all, if you don’t fully understand the data, how can you accurately explain it to someone with little working knowledge of it?
2) Determine what information you want to communicate – I call this the Law of Social Media, because much like social media, there will be a lot of noise and clutter in your data. It is critical that you identify what you need and extract it from the rest. Identify this as early as possible, otherwise you may find yourself stuck in the weeds trying to find your way out.
3) Know your audience – This cannot be overstated. Knowing your audience and knowing how they best digest data will be unbelievably helpful when constructing your visual information. It will save you time and allow you to take the best approach with your diagrams and visuals.
4) When in doubt, keep it simple – When given the option, always try to keep the data visualization as simple as possible. One of the main goals of even doing a data visual is to facilitate and ease the decision making process. Overly complex data visuals are akin to a poorly written map. It may get you where you need to go, but taking the scenic route may not be a luxury you can afford.