30 Days to Data Storytelling - Updated

There continues to be interest in data storytelling. For example, consider Cole Nussbaumer’s recently-released book, Storytelling with Data.  The amount of quality content on the subject continues to grow, and that’s why we decided to do a refresh on our 30 Days to Data Storytelling document from 2013.

New look, but the basic principle is still the same. Through a series of exercises, you’ll learn some of the best techniques for delivering information in a way that people understand, absorb, and act on it. You can skip around, or follow the daily instructions - the choice is yours. Either way, in less than four weeks you’ll be telling stories like a pro.

Already completed it and ready for more? Some other thought leaders on the topic, in addition to Cole, to check out include Lynn Cherny, Robert Kosara, and Alberto Cairo.

Self Service Reporting of Research Activity for Campus Leaders

Here's a recent webinar with Notre Dame's Office of Research sharing and discussing how they're using the Juicebox platform to implement self service reporting and automate their sharing of information with campus leaders.

A 30 minute webinar of Notre Dame's Director of Business Intelligence, Terri Hall, describing how they use Juicebox to provide self-service reporting to their users.

To learn more about Notre Dame's implementation of Juicebox, download the case study.

10 Screenwriting Lessons for the Aspiring Data Author

The art of data communication is in its infancy. Fortunately we can learn from other forms. Photography, cartoons, literature, painting, poetry, graphic design -- these are all about using language (visual, aural, written, etc.) to capture attention, convey information and ideas, and move an audience in some way. (In fact, helping organizations understand the power of data communication was the goal of our book Data Fluency.)

When I came across John August’s blog post about how to write a scene, I saw parallels with dashboard and visualization design. John is an accomplished screenwriter (Big Fish, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Frankenweenie) and popular blogger and podcaster.

His first piece of guidance: “What needs to happen in this scene? ...The question is not, “What could happen?” or “What should happen?” It is only, “What needs to happen?”

This is the critical concept in all of information design. It isn't a question of what data can you show, it is a question of what data you need to show. How do you need to propel your users forward in their role? Give your audience data that they can use to be better at what they do.

Next, he asks the screenwriter: “What’s the worst that would happen if this scene were omitted?...One thing you learn after a few produced movies is that anything that can be cut will be cut, so put your best material into moments that will absolutely be there when it’s done."

Like a movie audience, your audience has a limited attention span (unfortunately the data presentation business has fewer built-in constraints than the movie business). What data can you remove from the report that won't leave decision-makers misguided or confused? In our work, we always ask: What action is someone going to take when they see this data? If there isn't a clear answer, then leaving it out will help the reader focus on things that are more important.

John emphasizes the importance of choosing your setting..."A father-and-son bonding moment at a slaughter house will play differently than the same dialogue at a lawn bowling tournament."

It is no different for considering how information is presented to your audience. Information designers may overlook the different ways for presenting and wrapping context around the data. A daily email report, a printed slide deck, or an interactive dashboard will have very different impacts on your target audience.

"What’s the most surprising thing that could happen in the scene?"

In other words, what options do you have for grabbing the attention of the your audience? Great data visualizations do this by making data emotionally resonant. A couple good examples include The Fallen of WWII and US Gun Deaths (both grim data stories). In a more mundane example, we designed a data app that showed the costs of training programs in hospitals. By putting a dollar figure on this everyday investment, we were able to capture attention in a new way.

"Is this a long scene or a short scene?"

Edit yourself, show less data, and say more. We all have experienced the scourge of the neverending powerpoint deck or Excel report with endless sheets. Extraneous content comes at a high cost.

"Brainstorm three different ways it could begin."

Dashboards seldom consider a beginning or an end. But your audience will, one way or another, find a starting point and explore data in a sequence. Will you help them with this path? I believe it is crucial to offer an obvious place to begin and useful end-points. It is a feature we've baked into the fundamental design of our Juicebox platform

"Play it on the screen in your head."

I love this advice as applied to information design. Imagine your visualizations with different amounts of data, different values, different results and insights. Pretty soon you'll find the weaknesses. This is my first critique of the pretty dashboards designed on Dribbble. The data will never look so pretty as this in real life and the design will become incomprehensible.

Finally, John ends with advice on the writing process: 1. Outline; 2. Write the full scene; 3. Repeat 200 times. He wants screenwriters to start with the bones of the story, fill in the flesh, then iterate — without fear of tearing the whole thing down if it isn’t working.

Every form of communication has its challenges. Films face constraints and audience expectations, and yet have creative breadth in what can be put on the screen. Communicating data also has an interesting challenge for data authors. It takes a rigorous, analytical mind to understand the data and its meaning, but also requires the artistic skills of a screenwriter. It is a rare combination that needs to be taught and cultivated. If you don’t fit in the slim overlap of this Venn diagram, there is more to learn.

Design Tips for Non-Designers

Although I am not a designer, I have learned much about design over the last several years. Over the past year I’ve compiled this list of items for non-designers or people who work with designers.  Its intent is to give those of us that work increasingly with dashboard or information designers greater fluency in our conversations with designers.    

Creating this list took on a new urgency for me after reading this article on IBM’s design strategy.  I knew there would be more folks like me needing some ideas on how to understand, communicate and lead designers.

While there are many great sources of design, web design, information design and data storytelling, the following items are what spoke to me in the simplest terms possible. I divided them into sections and recommend reading or doing the sections in sequence as they build on each other. The Tufte course, in the major section, requires a day’s time and costs money, but is well worth it. 

If you get beyond this list check out these other sites Storytelling with Data, Visualising Data or Flowing Data to see some of what you learned being practiced or peruse Juice's design principles  under Learning and Resources to build on what you've learned. None of this will make you a designer, but your conversations with designers will be so much more fruitful. Enjoy. 

The Cost of Status Quo

Three years ago when traveling in another city, you most likely called a cab and waited for it to show up. Today, you use the Uber app, request a driver, and watch it on the map until it arrives.  No more ride refusals, broken credit card machines, or mysteriously long waits.   The taxi system relied on the status quo for too long and now Uber is making them pay for it.  

Think about the information you deliver to customers. When was the last time it changed? Have you and your reports fallen prey to the status quo?   

Doing nothing is always an option, but it’s never a no-risk proposition.  At some point in time, the status quo becomes more risky. When it comes to displaying information for customers, here are some thoughts on identifying whether the status quo has become too risky and it’s time to make some changes.

User logins are on the decline.

Users are using the information you provide less and less. Perhaps they’re using another source or not using anything anymore. When customers no longer need what you provide, you’re no different than a taxi in 2015.

Reporting comes up during contract renewals.

hen a customer explicitly brings up reporting as a reason they’re considering your competitor or wants to see report changes before they’ll renew, it gets no more obvious than this. Unless you’ve stopped listening to your sales team’s voicemails then this is a direct indication that you’ve relied on the status quo too long.  The fact you’re still using voicemail might be a clue too.  

Ad-hoc report requests are increasing

A good indicator that you’ve relied on the status quo too long is that the amount of support calls from customers for ad-hoc reports is increasing. Often, part of the financial justification for moving away from the status quo is baked into your on-going support costs.  Keep an eye on the number of tickets/requests you’re getting.  

Sales team wants to understand reporting

This is usually a big deal when the sales team takes an interest in reporting because really, why should they?  This means it’s coming up  more frequently in deal discussions, or existing customers are asking questions. Changing your sales team is more expensive than updating your reporting.

You’re pushing Excel and PowerPoint to their limits

You're using all the advanced functionality, elaborate macros, and pushing the tools to their limit and it still doesn’t satisfy customer reporting requests. When customers see the hourglass more than the data, or you have to stagger how many emails go out at a time, it’s probably time for an alternative solution.

This may sound discouraging on many fronts, but have hope. If you see yourself in any or all of these points, it means that you’re not alone and there’s a solution out there.  It’s the season of giving, and being generous with our time (and opinions) is something we love doing. At Juice, we’ve actually done the homework on the cost associated with status quo reporting. Feel free to reach out to us or schedule a quick call. We’re happy to offer a little free advice and give you some options other than the status quo.   

Reaching Beyond Data Visualization

The practice of analytics suffers from a persistent disconnect between the people who create (data authors) and those who might do something with the information (data consumers). If you've ever emailed an important analysis or shared a dashboard, and felt that your work had fallen into a void, then you know what I mean.

The gap between your data and informed-actions has to do with data authors and data consumers struggling to find common ground. Conventional wisdom has suggested that data visualization is the bridge. But after 10 years in this business, I've come to believe that better data visualization isn't enough to cross the divide. Making your analytics truly useful requires more: closer connection with your audience to help them understand the meaning; the ability to socialize the insights within an organization; and clear links between those insights and feasible actions.

This was the message that I shared -- along with my colleague Christian Oliver (VP of Data Products, HealthStream) -- at the 3rd annual Nashville Analytics Summit.

It is a humanist perspective. If we want everyday decision-makers to use data, we need more empathy for their work, the actions they can take, and how they choose to do things in a social environment. 


Peter Thiel's book Zero to One hits on a similar theme:

"Today's companies have an insatiable appetite for data, mistakenly believing that more data always creates more value. But big data is usually dumb data. Computers can find patterns that elude humans, but they don't know how to compare patterns from different sources or how to interpret complex behaviors. Actionable insights can only come from a human analyst...
We have let ourselves become enchanted by big data only because we exoticize technology. We're impressed with small feats accomplished by computers alone, but we ignore big achievements from complementarity because the human contributions make them less uncanny."

In your role as a data author, you have three imperatives that go beyond well-designed visual communication:

  1. Recognize that visuals are just the beginning of the journey in influencing your audience. They can start the conversation and educate, but that's not the end game.
  2. Understand your audience's job. Not just in the abstract but in the details of what actions they can and cannot take.
  3. Guide your audience to those actions. People are busy. Part of your responsibility is to help them quickly connect the dots between what you are saying with data and what they should do about it. This isn't dumbing things down; it is taking an extra step to make you and them successful.

Naturally enough, this is the philosophy that animates our Juicebox product design. Check it out with a personalized demo.

Gift Ideas for Data and Visualization Lovers

It's that time of year again. Thanksgiving is just a few days away and soon you'll have to answer that question you dread every year - what to get for your data-loving friends for Christmas? Clever gift giving is not easy so we're here to help with some great suggestions. 


A great option for someone who loves data and loves to read. Also a great choice if there's a book you'd really like to read. Get it for them and when they're done, you can borrow it. Win-win. Here are a few books we love:

You can find lots of neat visual gifts on Etsy, from infographics on Zombies, to periodic tables of Game of Thrones, the perfect cup of coffee art, to world map canvas art.

These prints from FlowingPrints.com would also make a great gift.

Visual Family Tree

My Tree and Me - a fun and unique way to visualize your family tree. Just in case you need to answer that timeless question, “how are we related to him again?"


Do you have any great gift suggestions we missed? Leave them in the comments below! Happy shopping!

Make reports better, not just prettier

We hear from people contacting us as well as from other designers that often the design role in the dashboard project is to “just make it look pretty.”    

Well, pretty only gets you so far. Users may pause and stay longer than the typical 15 seconds on the page if pretty, but did they walk away with or accomplish what they wanted?  Do you want users or customers to say it was pretty or useful?

When delivering an information experience™ there are more important goals that outweigh pretty every time.  Here are just a few to consider when designing an information experience.

1. Be purposeful with design choices

Be really intentional on how you incorporate visual elements into your design.  When used with intent it tells the user to take notice of what you’re sharing.  

Use Color Intentionally - Color has meaning. It can communicate emotion, feeling. It can also draw your attention to certain things. To make sure you draw attention to the right things, it’s important to limit the amount of color you use. For example, see the example below.  While mostly grayscale, your eyes are drawn to the red.

                                               Image source: Information Dashboard Design, by Stephen Few

                                             Image source: Information Dashboard Design, by Stephen Few

Avoid information overload - Gradual reveal can be used to guide people through information, while still allowing them to explore.

Simple is best - Use the simplest appropriate visualization for the data you are presenting. Consider what question you are trying to answer and communicate that as quickly as you can with a simple visual that’s easy to understand.

2. Design for Action

Ideo in their September 2015 HBR article, Design for Action, highlight many examples of designing for action.  Much of what they cite is relevant to information displays as well. Some other things to keep in mind:

Integration with workflow - People need to work quickly and efficiently and if it takes too long to get to the information they need, they will move on. Think through your user or customers workflow and how your design can best integrate.

Provide next steps - Keep your users end goal in mind and help them get there. Give them meaningful next steps at appropriate times. In the example below, LinkedIn helps you with setting up your profile by letting you know how much has been completed and which items are still left to complete so you know what’s next.

There is certainly a place for beauty in your dashboard design.  As Chris G. notes in our frequently downloaded “Guide to Creating Dashboards People Love to Use”, “Modern web design has moved on to seek a union of utility, usability and beauty. We must find a similar union when displaying data in business.”  Note how beauty is equally partnered with utility and usability.  There should be a balance.

When designing reports or dashboards, strive for useful, helpful and understandable.  “Pretty” simply isn’t enough.

Offer Self-serve, not Self-solve

Imagine this: after months of waiting for the new dashboard with promises of “actionable insight” and “democratized data” you click on the link and silence.  A numb feeling takes over as you stare  at the buttons and drop-downs as if they were from a commercial airline cockpit and wonder, what do you do with these fancy things do?

As the pace of business quickens, customers need data solutions that are truly self service and not self solve. Organizations continue to deliver solutions masquerading as self service, which offer extreme levels of flexibility and put the burden of solving the problem on the user. There is no service reflected in these solutions. A data product or solution should make the value of the data and how to answer a user’s questions readily apparent to truly be self service.  

Much of what we see in the consumer marketplace isn’t self-serve, rather it is self-solve. Take for example Trunk Club, an online men’s clothing retailer, where it asks customers a few questions about lifestyle, work-life, budget and sizes. Then, Trunk Club becomes their personal shopper and puts together wardrobe options, mailing them directly to the customer each month. This is a self-serve approach.


A self-solve experience, in contrast, will require more of your time.  The self-solve approach to clothing shopping is to turn buyers loose at the mall or on Ebay, where there is very little direction or guidance given to the shopper’s specific needs. Self-solve requires you to figure out the process yourself.   Self-solve involves an instruction manual or many rounds of trial and error.  

How do you know if your solution is self-solve or self-serve? Here are four clear points to help you distinguish the difference.

1. No Instruction Manual or Training Required. Remember the point of self-serve is to make life easier. Most users are not looking to invest more time, but less. Embed your training within the dashboard or application at key points.

2. Built to Answer Specific Questions. A self service solution is intended to answer specific questions. It’s not a means of just dumping information on someone.

3. Encourage vs. discourages exploration. While a long series of drop down menus may feel like it offers lots of exploration, it really doesn’t. Think of the paradox of choice. Offer a few options with interactivity, so the user sees immediately the fruits (or juice) of their efforts and wants to try more.

4. Make Steps Sequential. In the web analytics world you often want to see paths or steps the users took to make sure they’re guided down the intended flows. The same can be said for your dashboard. Make the flow or steps sequential and easy to follow.

What makes YOUR data powerful is creating an experience for the user that informs, instructs, and leads to smart discussions. Keep your audience engaged and deliver real value with a REAL self-serve solution. Don’t make them figure it out, because chances are, they won’t.

Review our design principles for a helpful guide and review examples of effective self-service models.

Schedule a demo to see how Juicebox can transform the information experience that your audience needs and values.


Building Customer Loyalty through Reporting

Over the past few months we’ve heard numerous stories, like the SEO reporting example highlighted here, where organizations are losing customers or renewals are in jeopardy because of poor reporting.   It hasn’t been specific to one industry either.  We’ve heard this story in healthcare services, software maintenance renewals, ad agencies, etc.

What we’ve noticed as a common thread across these cases is that reporting is viewed as a compliance activity or requirement, not an opportunity to connect with customers.  Reporting or the sharing of insights, is rarely thought of as a means of educating customers, sharing expertise or part of the overall customer experience.   

While there are many opportunities to build customer loyalty using data, i.e. using predictive analytics, to personalize offerings, we’ve created a short, no registration, e-book, Building Customer Loyalty Through Great Reporting, to articulate how a valuable Information Experience TM can enhance the overall customer experience you deliver and round out all your touch points.

The e-book is an easy late night Kindle read or lunch time scan.  Please check it out and let us know what you think about the relationship between reporting and your customer experience.  You can download it by clicking here.  

For a demo of our product, Juicebox, schedule an appointment.