The Consequence of Using Visualization Incorrectly

Data visualization can be a powerful tool when leveraged effectively, but what really happens when it’s done poorly? Well, how about a confused user? What about unnecessary support calls or just more meetings to explain what you’re trying to say?

Correct visuals help others understand the data and what it's telling them. When done well it’s like a whole new set of vocabulary for conveying your message. The reasons to avoid poorly presented information and investing in the time to do it right are as follows:

1. It can not only mislead, but lead people to the wrong decisions.

Misleading data can be completely unintentional, but no less damaging. When important data is left out of the visual, it leaves you open to making the wrong decision.

One thing to be aware of is whether or not certain data exists. There are times that specific data isn’t available and it’s important to know if you can get access to it or not. Missing data can lead to misunderstanding.

To make sure that you don’t mislead, start by thinking about your goals. What information is needed to make an accurate decision? Once you know what information you need and what data is available, think about the relationships between data points. Are those vital to understanding? If so, consider visuals that accurately display those relationships so that informed decisions can be made.

Also be sure that whatever visual you use has the right scale. Scale can easily distort information. It can also hide outliers that could actually be important data points to consider as context.

2. It can delay decision making, i.e. “not sure what this says, will look at it later.”

One of the biggest culprits of this problem is choosing the wrong visual. If you are trying to show relationships between data points, but use a bar chart instead of a scatterplot, it’ll take a lot of work to figure out where the relationships exist and what effect they have.

Also be sure to consider your audience. If they are more well versed in visualization, they may benefit from the use of more advanced visuals. But if not, keep it simple rather than alienating people.

The other culprit can be displaying too much or too little information. With too little information, your audience may be left wondering what the main point is and feeling like they need more information to form an opinion. With too much information, data can be overly complicated or cluttered and make it difficult to focus on the real story.

3. It can disengage some of your audience.

When visuals are confusing or difficult to follow or understand, users will trail off. They may decide to come back when they have more time to spend to “figure it out” or they may give up entirely. Neither is going to give you the results you want and can result in delayed, or misinformed, decisions. Some reasons that your audience might disengage are similar to issues above - a confusing visual, too little or too much information.

Ultimately you need to make sure your story is clear and easy to follow. Using visualizations incorrectly can cause you to lose your audience, lose the value in your data and ultimately lead to poor decision making.

For help with effective design and visualization, be sure to check out our design principles, particularly the sections on “guidance” and “audience-centric”.