Data visualization tips

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Humans have been presenting information in a pictorial or graphical format since the dawn of civilization—e.g., cave drawings. At the dawn of digital technology we called it presentation graphics—e.g., PowerPoint.

Only recently, with the dawn of big data, has the label of “data visualization” come into use.

As the flow and volume of data accelerated, it became clear that too much information could be as worthless as too little. You need relevant information to which you add meaning and context for effective communication.

Advantages of visualizing data graphically

  • Draw attention to the most important information you want to emphasize.
  • Facilitate interpretation and understanding of something that may not be obvious or clear.
  • Summarize information for situations that require easy, at-a-glance presentation.
  • Highlight supporting facts and evidence needed to spur decisions and motivate action.

Yet many people continue to present information through words rather than pictures. It could be that including graphics adds one more step to a busy schedule and deadline-driven project. And it requires a bit more skill—while everyone can write, not everybody can conceptualize and design effective graphics.

These hoops are worth jumping, particularly when the communication stakes are high and the price of failure is substantial.

Find information, present information

If your graphic design resources are scarce or unavailable and all you have is PowerPoint or equivalent software, you can apply some design principles that anyone can master. You can use the tools you have, guided by following data visualization resources and suggestions.

Design and presentation basicsData Visualization

  • Know your story—Make sure you have a compelling argument or story. Develop a thesis or key premise and support it with only the necessary information to make your point.
  • Know your audience—How familiar are they with the topic? Do you expect them to be open or resistant to what you have to say? What do you want them to do with this information?
  • Keep it simple—Remove clutter, which could be including too much information (resist the “data dump” effect) or too much embellishment like shadows and 3D perspective.

Basic data visualization advice:

  • Harvard Business Review (HBR) offers some helpful ideas from presentation expert Nancy Duarte, author of Slide:ology and Resonate. “Quick and Dirty on Data Visualization” is just thata great primer to help you get started.
  • Also on the HBR website, a handful of ideas for your next data-heavy presentationstart with having an overall story you’re trying to tell and then using charts sparingly to support that story.
  • 8 Core Principles of Data Visualization are shared by data visualization expert Stephen Few in this article on the website of Tableau Software, makers of data analysis and graphic representation tools.
  • These 10 Basic Data Visualization Tips are perfect for busy professionals who have to create their own graphs. One of the most important tips: Do not treat all data equally; determine and then present a structure of priority and emphasis.

Conceptualize your graphic approach and format

Before you can visualize data for your given situation you must conceptualize and visualize ideas in your own mind. Following are a few resources that will help you determine the best way to graphically communicate your given set of data or other information.

  • Are you dealing with data or concepts? Process or structure? Detail or overview? The “Periodic Table of Visualization Methods” is a clever, ambitious visualization of the many ways you can visualize information like B (Bar Chart), Pi (Pie Chart), Ct (Cartoon), Tr (Tree) and many more.
  • Harvard Business Review presents three ways to visualize extreme numbersthose that are very large or very smallthrough physical space, inflated proportions and movement/flow. For example, they show how Green Mountain can illustrate how many single serving coffee pods they sold in a two-year period (18 billion) by showing how big a building would have to be to hold them all. (Let’s just say it’s larger than your average single family house.)
  • Big data expert David McCandless gave a TED Talk in 2010 that you can view on the TED website. He talks about data visualization as creating an information map or landscape. It’s 17 minutes long, and includes many examples. He is also the creator of the Information is Beautiful website which shows more big data visualization examples.

Finding and managing information is one thing. Determining the best way to communicate and present it for the greatest meaning and impact is another, especially when attention is scarce and information is plentiful. To communicate meaningful insights for desired outcomes, consider data visualization. A picture can be worth a thousand words.


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