Data Visualization Best Practices

We’re living a data-generating reality in a digital world. The amount of data just keeps expanding; its potential to teach us growing along with it. Data wants to tell us its story.

What is Data Visualization and Why is it Important?

When we talk about data visualization, we are talking about a kind of translator that helps communicate the insights offered by the data to people, by placing it in a visual context.

When data is rendered visually, we can easily spot trends and patterns that could have gone undetected in just a statistical form. It makes total sense that data visualization will give us more meaning, as 90% of information transmitted in the human brain is visual. We also process visual imagery 60,000 times faster than text, which the brain finds easier to remember.

When we utilize Business Intelligence software, we draw on historical data to give us deeper insight into the factors influencing our business challenges or successes. We deliver reports of our findings via data visualization to ensure the message gets across to the right person in the most effective and memorable way.

Best Practices to Keep in Mind

We can now present our data findings in compelling, attention-grabbing ways. So, how can we tell the best stories with our data visualization reports?

  • Say goodbye to the simple bar graph. Yes, it is a “visual,” but it’s from the Ark. There are so many exhilarating options for presenting data these days – don’t be shy, get wildly creative while at the same time telling a clear story.
  • Let the visual display you choose match the purpose of the data. Let the findings dictate the form. Line charts for tracking trends over time, bar charts to compare quantities, scatter plots for joint variation of two data items, bubble charts showing joint variation of three data items, and pie charts to compare parts of a whole.
  • Trim the fat – if you have any elements that serve no purpose other than to fatten up the visuals, let it go. You don’t want any clutter blocking the view of the insights generated.
  • Just one glance at the design should allow you to intuitively understand how to interact with the insights presented in the data visualization.
  • You want your story to be clear. You don’t have to read between the lines –we easily reach the pivotal part in the plot with laser sharp precision.
  • Make the story meaningful.

“There is a magic in graphs. The profile of a curve reveals in a flash a whole situation — the life history of an epidemic, a panic, or an era of prosperity. The curve informs the mind, awakens the imagination, convinces.”
‒ Henry D. Hubbard

Additional Tips for Data Visualization in Reporting

The narrative that you choose to weave drives action. The great thing is that you can create your data visualizations on a large scale thanks to the automation of graph drawing.

The evolution of this process has been the development of an interactive opportunity where users can manipulate data on their own – if they have the time and would like to create a new chapter in their data story.

On a more intensive technical level of designing your data visualization report, look to employing these specifics:

  • Use the full axis.
  • Avoid distortion by ensuring the numerical axis starts at zero.
  • Avoid using 3D effects as these reduce people’s ability to comprehend the information.
  • Always use less than six colors. Don’t forget that some users will be color blind and factor that into your color choices!
  • Don’t change styles in the report.
  • Keep consistency of the form of your chosen chart across the entire series so that comparisons are easy to make and patterns can be clearly discerned.
  • Don’t make the user work too hard to understand your math.

“By visualizing information, we turn it into a landscape that you can explore with your eyes, a sort of information map. And when you’re lost in information, an information map is kind of useful.”
‒ David McCandless

Data Visualization Should Drive Action

For your data visualizations to instigate action, your audience must know your original intention for interrogating the data.

The insights revealed in your rousing story should be more than simply reporting on customer behavior or tracking company performance. Decide who you have created this data visualization for, and what needs this report will fulfill for them. You can’t generate a dashboard that is going to serve everyone in the organization. Get specific. You must determine the metrics that will most effectively yield the answers to your strategic questions.

Define a threshold for concern that is outside of the norm. This allows the ability to identify concerning trends that will form your data visualization, and this in turn will inspire action.

Every report should contain the answer to the most fundamental question – “What steps need to be taken now that we have these insights?” When your evidence is backed by your data story, you are empowering your people with clear directives towards action.

“The greatest value of a picture is when it forces us to notice what we never expected to see.”

‒ John Tuke

Data Visualization Should Provide Clarity

The goals that you have decided for your data visualization will provide the audience with context so that they are able to better understand the numbers they are looking at. If your report makes sense due to its clear story line, it’s much easier to know where improvements need to be made.

Simplicity is always the key to a great story; your colleagues don’t want to try and work their way through plot twists and turns. Viewers need to keep pace and digest your content in snack-sized bites.

Get your employees to make data discovery part of their daily workplace experience, by sending them metric driven notifications and delivering scheduled email reports. Every time key numbers drop below a defined threshold and are a cause for concern, alerts can go out via automated notifications. These alerts inspire employees to look carefully at the metrics and find ways to act and bring those numbers back up.

When people are privy to the story of how the organization is faring in the market, they feel viscerally part of the process and will be more inspired to engage in actions to rectify problems. You can create an engaged data visualization culture in your business, where employees crave the access to BI capabilities to drive the business forward.

“The art and practice of visualizing data is becoming ever more important in bridging the human-computer gap to mediate analytical insight in a meaningful way.”

‒ Edd Dumbill

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