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.