Every company wants to make the best data visualizations but it is not something that is as easy as just making data or graphs look nice. They need to be practical, useable and simple.
Hitting this sweet spot is the nexus of designers, data scientists, and company executives in modern data-driven companies. Companies need to be able to make informed decisions quickly and inform their stakeholders fully. Effective data visualizations are what allow them to do it.
So what elements do companies who create the best data visualizations possess?
An ability to quickly convey information
The core purpose of a visualization is to quickly and easily communicate information to an audience. It has been the entire basis of visualizations throughout history, whether it is creating a map to show directions or to display complex patterns within a huge dataset.
It is something that we discussed with Chi-Yi Kuan, Director of Business analytics at Linkedin, who believes that 'An effective visualization should help users to use the right data with very minimal barrier to visually answer a specific question. In the age of big data, there are mountains of data in every company. If you don’t have effective visualization, it won’t yield a grain of insights and returns.'
Designers understand and plan what they are trying to convey
Those creating the visualization may not be data science geniuses and most won't even be the people who came up with the data being displayed. However, they need to understand what they are trying to display. This is not to say an in-depth understanding of the data, but more a case of the purpose of the visualization, technical capabilities of the audience and the least amount of data to display to get the desired results.
Akash Mukherjee, Data Products, People Growth at Facebook, told us recently that he asks himself five questions when trying to communicate any data, including visualizations:
1) What question are you trying to answer?
2) How big is your data in terms of volumes as well as richness?
3) What is the data-savviness of your audience?
4) What business domain does your question fall in? Is it HR, Marketing, Finance or something else?
5) What are some pre-attentive processing biases that your specific audience has?
Companies know that simplicity is king
Regardless of how technically adept people are, the simpler a visualization can be made, the better it will be. It relates to firstly the speed in which decisions can be made, but also to the basic understanding of what it represents. Given that visualizations have a purpose to display a specific finding, trend or pattern, having the ability to represent this in its simplest form is essential to avoid confusion.
Andreas Galatoulas, Head of Learning Data at Macmillan Education puts it simply as 'It needs to be simple and easy to understand for non-technical people, so anyone can read the visualization and get the insight they want.'
They know how to tell a story
Finally, the best visualizations tell a story. They do not simply place the information in front of you. This is about creating contextual structure within the graphic that leads those who are using it through the information in a logical and considered manner. For instance, if you were to be visualizing the findings of a study, it would make more sense to display the ways the data was sourced and analyzed before in order to clarify and justify the findings.
Charlotte Thornton, who was previously a BBC Visual Journalist and now works as a UX Designer at Amazon, told us that, 'It needs to be simple, it needs to tell a story, it needs to be rewarding and ultimately the user needs to be engaged throughout the whole thing. If you manage to achieve all of those points, I believe you will have a really good data visualization.'