End data-phobia: 3 visualization pitfalls to avoid

Here’s the situation: you are at your department’s quarterly meeting and your boss’s boss is presenting a number of charts and tables from the reporting dashboard. The data visuals are not telling a clear story and most are struggling to join the discussion around what impact this data has on the department, which is the entire point of the meeting. In that moment, you really appreciate the kind of graphics that make it easy to “get it” with a glance.

The confusion created from unclear visuals is a common scenario, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Just think of all the visual data we encounter in our everyday lives -- we constantly consume and interact with it. And when done right, the data can help us understand our world and engage curiosity.

Take for instance the weather. Most of us check it everyday to know whether to grab a jacket or an umbrella. There’s usually a nice graphic to quickly get that info across.

And on your way to work, you might check the GPS for traffic and route alternatives. Heading home, you stop by the grocery store and grab a bottle of wine and pick up ingredients for dinner. The wine label even pairs the food for you!

We are looking at data and making decisions all the time. We habitually checkout these data products on our smart devices which are sophisticated yet digestible, so we continue to use them. But what happens when we can’t digest and just don’t get it? Data phobia!

Sadly, most of us suffer from this illness because the data products we depend on don’t tell a clear story. While it often takes more than just ordinary visuals to communicate a complicated message, some cues can be taken from everyday examples to help make complex data more accessible.

Here are 3 pitfalls we’ve found that hinder a user’s understanding of data:

1. Expecting end users to understand your jargon. It may make you look smart, but it makes others feel dumb. Ever see the finance manager presenting to a room full of HR and marketing execs about EBITDA and CAPEX? Consider how you can make the message meaningful to your audience.

2. Dropping end users in the weeds. Give end users a clear and simple starting point, help them out with high level summaries and allow them to progress logically through the data, gradually intruding more complex details. Eliminate those weeds and provide a path from simple to complex with clear visual hierarchy.

3. Telling conflicting stories with different data sources. Make sure not to provide data from different sources that tell conflicting stories. Don't make your end users have to guess which story belongs with which case. Data should be good enough to help a user make a decision and move the discussion forward.

Now take a look at some of the data products you’ve created. Do they pass the pitfall test? It’s always a good idea to run some of the visualizations by a sample of your end users.  Get feedback on whether they can glean insights, and if it spurs discussion and decision-making. If not, find out what is confusing to them. Drill in and think about how to simplify the message, construct a consistent story, and guide the end user down a logical path.

Find out more on effective data visualization from our book, Data Fluency. Do your part to help end data phobia and make data more delicious for everyone.

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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.