What Black Panther Can Teach Us About Data Visualization

Lessons from Kevin Loudermilk, Director of Data Visualization at USAA's presentation at the Data Visualization Summit


I recently attended the Data Visualization Summit in San Francisco. Over the coming weeks, I will be sharing the insights I gathered from some of the most impactful presentations.

First up is Kevin Loudermilk, Director of Data Visualization at USAA. 

He outlined two key lessons to consider when creating an effective data visualization: 

1. Understand your audience

The first lesson was that it is not just the content of a story you're trying to tell with a visualization that is important - it's how the story is told. 

To clarify this, he pointed to the circumstances behind the creation of the comic book company 'Tiger' - the first of its kind to have a completely black staff.

Tiger was created as a response to the Black Panther comic book line, which had not been long released when Tiger was formed. As one of the first positive portrayals of black men in a comic, the Black Panther was lauded as a triumph for inclusivity. However, admirable as this was, the comic simply didn't seem to resonate with black people.

The problem was that the character was being written solely by white men. They didn't understand what the black experience was like - the Black Panther writers simply didn't know how to tell black people's stories. This rule extends to everyone; you can't write someone's story without understanding them. 

  • When creating a visualization, you need to understand the stakeholder you're creating it for or it will unusable.

2. If you don't understand them, ask!

The second key point was focused on how this understanding could be achieved and the importance of dialogue.

To demonstrate his argument, Kevin conducted a group exercise. He asked everyone to stand up, then sit down on the count of three. After they completed the task he asked everyone why they had done what he asked. Because he asked them to, was the answer. "But did anyone think to ask me why?" 

This is an easy trap to fall into. However, if you're being asked to create a visualization for a stakeholder, it is one you must avoid. For example, one common request from a stakeholder is for a dashboard to help run the business. This will be the only instruction you get. Nine months later, "you come back with an amazing looking dashboard that the stakeholder is incapable of using. That's because you didn't have nearly enough information."  He says the best thing you can do is say " teach me". It is a hard culture to create, but without it, you are doomed to failure.

It helps if the stakeholder functions as a business partner. They need to be actually embedded into your data visualization team, to sit with them. This way, they will be able to help you understand the context necessary for visualizations to serve their purpose.

  • "Next time you get a request for a dashboard, I hope you ask the question, what are you trying to prove? What actions are you going to take, what is the next step down? I can give you the numbers but what are you going to do with it?"

Further takeaways:

- If your stakeholder is going to be able to help you understand what they want from a visualization, you are going to need a common set of tools and language.

- The client's understanding and usability is the most important thing. If the team is most comfortable in Excel and everything they create will eventually be transferred to an Excel spreadsheet, then just create it in Excel.

- Your visualizations don't need to be super awesome. Sometimes simple is better If it gives them what they need.

- The best business partner is a self-sufficient business partner. Empower your stakeholders to use visualizations without holding their hands.

For more insights like these from experts on how to best use data to inform innovation and accurate decision-making, attend our next Data Visualization Summit in Boston this September.


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