Guide Users to Understanding With Common Structures

When was the last time you vacationed in a new city? Remember that feeling of being lost until you had a couple landmarks under your belt or had to pull out your smartphone for guidance? Well it’s also important to provide that same guidance for users of your data products so they aren’t lost when trying to utilize it. For successful navigation, use structure to guide users on a path through your data product.

Laying out information is often undervalued, so we end up seeing a lot of visuals that are haphazardly placed on the screen. Sure, all the information is there for you - but can you understand it? Not every user will be an expert in the data, so that’s where guidance is important. Can people understand how the data points relate? If the way the data is presented doesn’t help the user’s understanding move forward, then the product has failed.

When deciding how to structure your information, consider the general structure of the underlying data. Related items should be near each other, there should be a clear entry point to reading the information, and important items should be more prominent. All these things can help move someone through the information and affect the way they approach the business problem.

Here are 3 Common Structures Used in Data Products:

The first structure is flow. This emphasizes your business’s sequence of events or actions across time. Generally, a flow structure will be based on an underlying process with a beginning and an end. Think about that vacation, you decide what new cities to visit, dates to stay at each location and create an itinerary or flow. All this data informs where your vacation will take you and when.

Relationships are another common structure for data. With information design, you  can emphasize relationships by using connective lines and descriptive labels so the user can understand how things are connected.  A common illustration of relationships are found in things like the metro or subway maps that you rely on as a traveler to get around the city.

Finally, grouping as a last resort for structure. Grouping data categorizes information and creates hierarchy. By grouping similar things you can help bring order and logic to otherwise haphazard information. While traveling, figuring out where to get your next meal may help you understand grouping. You can use your smartphone to check out venues by categories like type of food, ethnicity, neighborhood, price or reviewer ratings.

By keeping these structures in mind, you ensure that your users are guided down a path. This leads to better understanding and ultimately, action.

Find out more about effective data visualization from our book, Data Fluency.

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Excerpted with permission from the publisher, Wiley, from Data Fluency: Empowering Your Organization with Effective Data Communication by Zach Gemignani, Chris Gemignani, Richard Galentino, Patrick Schuermann.  Copyright © 2014.