How to Use Visualizations to Support a Data Story

by   |   March 27, 2015 5:30 am   |   0 Comments

Josh Knauer, President and CEO, Rhiza

Josh Knauer, President and CEO, Rhiza

If you are like most marketers, sales people or working professionals trying to grow a business, odds are you understand that data can have a profound impact on your business, but aren’t too sure about how to make that impact a reality. Most organizations – meaning most people – haven’t figured out how to work with data in ways that are easy, scalable, repeatable, and impactful.

Let’s focus for a bit on impactful. Data can be an incredibly impactful tool for any business, if people can understand it. Rows of data in a spreadsheet might initially impress (You have done your homework!), but quickly grow overwhelming and rarely deliver a compelling message. Data visualizations, from heat maps to pie charts, give your data a lot more zing.

Unlike numbers, visuals are easily interpreted by mass audiences. Remember the old adage that a picture is worth a thousand words? The power of a data visualization is that it can translate to any audience what only data people can see in spreadsheets of numbers. For this reason alone, data visualization should play an important part in any data story you are trying to tell.

But playing an important part doesn’t mean telling the entire story. Visualizations alone do not tell a data story. Instead, they should be anchors that demonstrate your overarching point. Considering visuals from this angle has two important impacts. First, visuals become a tool to communicate the data. Second, visuals as a proof point require a different process for design and development. The result is a more focused and clearly articulated visual that highlights one particular insight and supports an overarching storyline.

Developing visuals from this point of view can feel like a struggle, but can be easily adapted by following a simple, work-backward process:

Know Your Story

Telling a story with data is a backward process. Before you even think about visuals, you must start at the end and identify the story you’re trying to tell. It may even be helpful to draw it out on a whiteboard before starting data analysis.

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Take for example, a marketer at a product company who is tasked with convincing her higher-ups to implement a particular marketing plan. To do so, she must figure out what her story is. Who is the target market and what is their persona? What can we say about the way this audience behaves and how that correlates with the product? She must identify the story she is trying to tell before exploring each supporting point.

By defining this story up front, you’ll be in a better position to ask the right questions and index your data effectively. It is the story that will guide you to identify key insights and, ultimately, the visuals you will use to communicate them.

Evaluate Your Options

When it comes to visuals, there are a plethora of options for displaying data. Choosing a visual should not be based purely on cosmetics. It should be a strategic decision based on what visual best displays the point you’re trying to make. Maps, for example, are a great way to display ZIP code-based information. A bar graph with every ZIP code accounted for, on the other hand, would be overwhelming.

Data visualizations come in a variety of shapes and sizes: bar graphs, pie charts, line graphs, and chloroplast, to name a few. Each option plays a distinct role in communicating data, and should be handled as such. To create the best display, every option should be considered. A final selection should be made based on which visuals best communicate your point in relation to a particular set of data.

It’s All in the Details

The power of a visualization is always in the details. The variety available does not end with the type of visuals, it extends into the details. It is the small nuances that will create a visual with profound impact.

Color, size, and boldness all play a critical role in the final visualization, and should be taken into consideration. Color, for one, can be incredibly impactful to the viewer. Some colors can be difficult to look at for long periods of times, while others tend to evoke certain emotions. Gradient schemes can help display impact, and contrasting colors can help highlight major differences.

How you group and label the visualizations is equally important. As a standard rule of thumb, grouping information into threes makes it easier for an audience to digest the information. Too much information, despite being in a visual, can feel overwhelming and dilute the overall point you are trying to make. Likewise, labeling will help to identify what the audience is digesting and its significance.

Simplicity Shines

In the end, simple is always best. While flashy visuals may seem like an easy draw to make your story more compelling, they can do more harm than good. An audience will absorb the full impact of a visual if it is clear, focused, and direct.

Resist the urge to use visuals that are loud and overly accessorized – these displays will distract from your main point. Instead, figure out what communicates your point in a clear, concise manner. Simple visuals ensure that your entire audience will understand the point you are trying to make.

Visualizations are a powerful tool that can evoke feelings that raw numbers in a spreadsheet cannot. But they will be effective only if chosen strategically and used correctly to communicate individual insights that support your larger storyline. They are the pillars of your data story and an effective tool for mass communicating the insights derived from large data sets. Choose them wisely, as they will make or break your data story.

Josh Knauer is CEO and president of Rhiza, which offers online tools that make big data actionable for marketers and salespeople.

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