Don’t miss out on the opportunities it offers
Visual representations are a fundamental component of human learning, thought and understanding. Over thousands of years, mankind has used visualization to instruct, convey meaning and tell stories to express ideas, opinions and find solutions to problems.
Take a look at one of the famous examples of data visualization that comes from Charles Minard, a French Civil Engineer, who used visualization to capture the story of Napoleon’s march (and subsequent retreat) to Moscow.
In Graph 1, you can see that the bar’s thickness steadily decreases as the army makes its way towards Moscow. The black bar shows how astonishingly the strength declines as the army retreats from Moscow.
At the bottom of the graph is a line that tracks the temperature, which played a key part in damaging the size of the army.
The shaded and black bars finally meet back at the beginning, and the viewer can clearly see how a once-large force has reduced to a handful of soldiers, telling us a powerful story of how temperature destroyed Napoleon’s army.
This visualization teaches us one thing. That human perception is powerful. But our perceptions can be aided and augmented significantly with the help of visual prompts.
In a business setting, as we try to solve multiple problems simultaneously and wrestle with large and complex data, visualizations can provide cognitive comfort as well as help us digest a lot of information at once.
There are three fundamental tasks we can achieve with visualization:
1. Exploration: We can search for significant facts with the goal to discover a problem/solution
2. Sense-making: We can examine and make sense of data with the goal to understand our business needs better
3. Communication: We can convey information to others with the goal to make informed decisions
An effective visualization cuts a significant amount of employee time and enables team leaders to take swift action based on data. It helps identify key performance indicators for a given business or department and attain a competitive edge over others who are not using data.
For example, when you are trying to understand how you can reduce operational costs, you can improve your strategies exceptionally by backing it up with visual data. For example, even if I don’t explain anything about this footwear brand’s sales data, you can figure out a lot from the visualization alone.
There lies a myth that we visualize data for people who have difficulty understanding numbers. However, even the brightest mathematicians benefit from seeing quantitative information displayed visually, because it helps critical thinking.
Therefore, the lessons to remember when telling effective stories with visualization are:
1. Trust is a key issue. If you don’t design your views properly, it will less likely be trusted by the people who are looking at them.
2. Make sure the visuals are expressive and that they convey the data accurately.
3. Augment human perception by using proper graphical vocabulary, utilizing white space, and avoiding unnecessary clutter.
4. Most importantly, provide appropriate context or history of where the data originated from and what it is trying to communicate.
You don’t have to become a graphic arts expert to do better data visualization. To understand the data and be trained in visual thinking and communication is what matters most.
People who are focused on marketing and artistry often miss the opportunities of effective data visualization that actually helps a company thrive.
Vision is by far our dominant sense, and since the days of our earliest ancestors they have communicated messages and ideas through visualization before words. Visual perception evolved to do faster and better thinking and the same can be applied in business.
Data exploration, sense-making and communication should always involve an intimate collaboration between seeing and thinking about business problems.
Touhid Kamal uses anthropology to learn more on micro-cultures and human behaviour, and is a UX researcher and team culture builder. He can be reached at [email protected].