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Make Data Visualization Engaging and Compelling for Users

Data Visualization Illustration
April 21, 2022

In today’s era of big data analytics, organizations harness data for many reasons—

to inform policy, to share public health information that directly affects individuals and the community, to optimize and personalize services and products for members, to work more effectively and efficiently, and to gain actionable insights and make critical business decisions.

Data, in fact, is nearly synonymous with the modern world, so much so that your potential clients and customers look for it when vetting your organization as a potential partner. They expect to find data on your website and use it to make educated, informed decisions about whether or not they want to work with or hire you.

A question we hear repeatedly from our own clients is: how can we present our data in an engaging, compelling way that users can understand? The answer lies in data visualization, yet not all data visualization is created equally.

As we discussed in a recent blog post, “Why Multi-Sensory Web Design Can Improve the User Experience,” 90 percent of information processed by the brain is visual. And according to a study from the University of Minnesota, highlighted in an article from Cornerstone Solutions Group, our brains process visuals 60,000 times faster than we process text. That’s astounding—and why people often resort to visual analogies when discussing numbers, saying things like, “X is the size of two football fields” or “Y weighs as much as three elephants.” It’s also all the more reason to visualize your data, instead of presenting it only in dense paragraphs, tables, and graphs.

But visualizing complex numbers in ways users can digest and even interact with comes with challenges. If time permits, and you’re so inclined, you can pore over the four acclaimed books self-published by Edward Tufte, a legend in the field of data visualization and a professor emeritus of political science, statistics, and computer science at Yale University. Tufte offers tremendous insight, and although we cannot distill his wisdom in a single blog post, we can highlight what we’ve learned from him and share our own insights from our two-plus decades in user-friendly web design.

Don’t overlook context or underestimate your users

For starters, Tufte believes most graphics and data visualizations “fail because they omit or manipulate context, deceive by discouraging comparison or obscuring important details, and confuse with visual miscues,” writes Michael Martin, describing Tufte’s work in a 1997 article for Fortune Magazine that remains as relevant today as it was then. The key, then, to effective data visualization is to fully understand and illustrate the context (or the full story or circumstances) of the data. Yet too often, Tufte believes, the context is misconstrued or left out altogether. As an example, he cites annual reports that reveal years of rising revenue without mentioning or adjusting for rising inflation.

At Astriata, we see this sort of selective sharing of information frequently, not from our clients, per se, but from various news outlets and across the Internet in general. Here again, we turn to one of Tufte’s golden rules: always respect your audience.

But what does respect look like in data visualization?

According to Tufte, it means not using your graphics as “devices for showing the obvious…” It means, too, that your graphics need to inspire thinking and learning. In fact, Tufte devoted an entire book, Beautiful Evidence, to the concept of using graphics to spur intellectual thinking and analysis. Thinking starts with the retina, “which is made of brain cells,” Tufte shares in an interview about Beautiful Evidence, and graphics are “analytical displays of evidence” that aim to “assist thinking.”

How does that happen?

Data visualization and analytical graphics “…should be decided on how [they] assist analytical thinking about evidence,” Tufte says. This leads us to another critical point about data visualization: usability testing.

Conduct usability research and testing

When you invest the time and effort it takes to visualize your data, you want to make sure it resonates and works with your users, and you want to involve users as early in the process as possible. The only way to do that is through usability testing. While many UX specialists test only for the user’s ability to comprehend the design, we strive to do more than that, as Tufte advises, by testing how users react to and engage with the content. Does it push users to think about novel ideas? Does it foster creative or analytical thinking—or leave users with an inspiring takeaway? Does it respect your users’ intellect, without creating a sense of overwhelm or confusion?

This is not to say, of course, that clarity and comprehension do not matter. To us, they do—and we make sure we test for them. It is to say, however, that clarity and comprehension are not the only signs of effective, compelling data visualization. With task-based usability testing, our team assesses whether users can learn from and analyze the information in the way it is presented. After all, effective data visualization needs to engage users in some way. It needs to fuel excitement or thinking or some spark of an idea.

Consider making your data interactive

Businesses and organizations once presented data in static spreadsheets, tables, and graphs. Today, however, many users (even internal users) interact with data in ways that suit their needs and deliver personalized insights from complex and multi-layered data sets. For this reason, we encourage our clients to ask their own clients or customers how they might benefit from interacting with some of the data they collect. For instance, do you need to compare the demographics of a population across different counties and their use of mobile devices? If you’re an association, can members find other members with common interests to collaborate across specialties?

For one of our clients, a federal agency, we created an interactive map and searchable database of traveling exhibits nationwide, through which users clicked on the map to find events by location—or filtered information by date, location, or exhibition name. At a glance, the interactive map communicated a key goal of the client: to demonstrate the wide range of exhibits available nationwide. At the same time, it gave users more than one way of interacting with or looking at something: they could click on the map to explore, or they could filter the data with specific goals in mind. Although most users viewed the information by location, our years of usability research and testing tell us to never assume all users are the same, and to the extent possible, include options.

If you’re struggling to visualize your data in compelling, engaging ways, know that Astriata can help. Reach out to us to start the conversation.

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