“Psychologist Albert Mehrabian has shown that 93% of communication between human beings is in the nonverbal area. This means that an image can be immediate, while language requires time to analyze. Data visualization can cut to the chase, saving critical time and allowing the next step in developing solutions.” – Visual Matters
Data visualization is an image that displays data about a particular topic. Whether it’s a traditional chart, a pie graph, or a more unique illustration, the purpose is the same: to make information easier to understand and act upon. When insights can be drawn faster and with greater clarity, organizations can truly call themselves data-driven.
Data’s Hidden Story
When we break down what data visualization actually does on a granular level, we can see why it’s so effective. Since the beginning of human existence, storytelling has been one of the most effective means of communication. The problem with numbers and data is that it lacks structure and organization – and there is a lot of it. No conceivable pattern exists yet, and so most professionals struggle to make sense of the data they gather. By translating information into visual elements, we frame it in a way the brain can quickly understand and remember.
Hubspot gives several examples of how successful brands have used visualization to get a point across. DensityDesign used a simple dotted map to show where each of the world’s 2,678 languages were spoken. FiveThirtyEight showed in a series of line graphs the full history of each NFL team. And in an effort to quell misinformation, Bloomberg Business created a sequence of simple charts to show which global factors have contributed the most to climate change since 1810.
In each case, public understanding of these complex trends was greatly enhanced by simply looking at an image. Furthermore, visualizations are interactive, allowing users to input parameters and derive more granular insights from smaller data segments. These visuals also empowered viewers to share the stories of the data with other people.
Of course, visualizations don’t always need to be presented to an outside audience. They may be just as useful – if not more useful – for internal purposes.
Why Employ Data Visualizations?
“On average, those using data visualization tools report it would take an average of nine hours longer to see patterns, trends and correlations in their company’s data without data visualization.” – SAP
The ability to recognize patterns with less time spent analyzing is an obvious benefit of visuals. But the implications of this go even deeper. When organizations are aware of a pattern, they can immediately take advantage of it or act to prevent it, depending on the situation. Thus visualizations put leaders square in the driver seat to make the most informed decisions possible. In addition, they reveal outliers and segments of data that should have less impact on decision-making. Because data analysis is so complex, time-consuming, and multifaceted, visuals reveal insights that might have otherwise gone unnoticed.
Data visualizations also make it easier for your team members to get on the same page. Too often it is only those directly handling data that have a real understanding of it. But when data is driving organizational policies (especially changes), it’s critical that all team members have an opportunity to see the data and come to their own conclusion about it. When data is crystal clear, team members get on the same page. When they know why a certain action is being implemented, collaboration and productivity become easier.
Ultimately, visuals create awareness around particular trends or patterns. This might mean your team gaining a better understanding of customer needs. Or it might mean management figuring out where budgets are being wasted. This allows organizations to increase ROI by investing in what works. The key lies in choosing the right visualization for the situation.
When to Use Each Type of Visualization
The more diverse types of data you have, the more decisions need to be made. Whether you’re managing data on website performance, revenue, sales, customer behaviors, marketing campaigns, or anything else, there are infinite ways to interpret it. But just like a good story is carefully sequenced, data must be carefully presented. Choosing the wrong type of visual can create even more confusion around an already ambiguous subject.
So how can an organization determine the best way to illustrate its data? While dozens of visual styles exist, a few considerations can help you choose a simple one:
- Are two or more things being compared? If so, a bar, pie, or line graph can be used.
- Do you need to show different parts of a whole? A waterfall, stacked bar, or pie chart is best.
- Are you trying to understand data distribution? Go with a scatterplot.
- Do you need to uncover a trend? A dual-axis line or column chart will do.
Other attributes that make for better understanding include color consistency, clear labeling, and logical ordering. Visualizations need to be simple enough to understand, but also detailed enough to allow for the analysis of more complex types of data.
Whether you need to cut costs, engage more customers, or boost productivity, the ability to visualize your data will continue to be a key tool for business intelligence moving forward. As avenues for collecting data continue to multiply, it will be even more critical that teams have the tools to simplify and interpret their information.