Martin Firth discusses the rising importance of visual analytics
I begin this article by stating that we are all analysts.
‘No way, not me,’ I hear you say, but my argument is this….all the time, every day, we are processing information to make rational decisions to try to make our lives or our situation better.
Whether that’s trying to get richer, fitter, happier, smarter, fulfilled etc… It could be when you’re shopping, eating, dating, or even committing a crime! We assess the cost, versus the benefit to make a decision – will this t-shirt look good on me, how many calories in are this breakfast bar, he/she looks hot but also a bit crazy – swipe left or swipe right?
In business, people do this for a living. Across any company, various people, often analysts, take information, process it, and then use it to drive decision-making. Good for them! However, the problem is that the information is usually in the form of large data, and requires analytic software and experts to manipulate and process it. Then these ‘experts’ will try to convince you what the correct decision is. That’s a lot for one person to take on, and let’s be honest in most cases the person doing this ‘number crunching’ is usually most happy when erm.. ‘crunching numbers’. Not (usually) in presenting their findings to the key decision makers. The result – a ticket on the data express to the land of spreadsheet hell, and there are a lot of people on this trip!
How many times have you sat in a meeting when a slide deck is shown with a table of somehow inter-related numbers, percentages and calculations. Usually squeezed onto the slide using the smallest font possible so none of the numbers are decipherable in any way. The presenter spits out fact after fact while you’re still trying to identify the headings and work out whether red or green highlighting is a good or bad thing. Death by PowerPoint!
As I said before – we all need information to make decisions. Importantly we need to understand what the information is telling us to make good decisions. Also, if you’re the presenter of such information, you need to get buy-in from multiple stakeholders. You need to tell a story and this is where visual analytics come in.
Visual analytics takes boring old data and brings it to life. Throw away rows and columns and embrace charts, performance indicators, colour, images, and formatting. The human mind is constantly seeking patterns and is attuned to recognising familiar shapes and ways of seeking information. Visual analytics feeds right into this need and forces the brain to engage.
There are many tools in the armoury for getting this message across. Dashboards are becoming ever more apparent in the workplace giving stakeholders access to up to date (often real-time) information in a nice digestible format accessible on their PC, mobile device and on large screen TVs for all to see.
Infographics offer a great way to link data and creative design to get a message across.
There is also a multitude of charts which you can use to visually display your data ranging from the traditional bar and line charts to more modern visuals such as Word Clouds, TreeMaps, Heatmaps and all kinds of crazy ways of presenting information.
So in summary, the tools are getting better and the options for visualising data getting richer. However the key to getting the message across is to bring the data to life in a way that is easy to understand for your audience. Remember that you’re telling a story and you want people to enjoy the journey.