Effective Data Visualization: Beyond the Software and Collaborate

Business leaders and insiders appreciate it when data gives them a thorough and accurate overview of the current situation. Just by looking at the numbers, they can tell where they stand relative to performance goals, and project where the future is going to trend.

However, not everyone can rapidly assimilate information and glean insights from the numbers alone. The various stakeholders in any organization may range from outside partners and investors to employees and association representatives. They may be very familiar with certain facets of a business, but not the whole.

From C-suite boardroom meetings down to reports, presentations, and internal memos, it’s essential to have some way of boiling data down into a more digestible form. And that’s where data visualization begins to play a prominent role. Companies can outsource the mundane tasks of analytics to data management solutions, but this creative process requires human input, collaboration, and consultation.

The dominance of vision

You probably don’t need science to tell you that vision is our most dominant sense, but the research indicates it’s overwhelmingly so. An estimated 80-85% of everything we perceive, learn, think, or do, is mediated through our sight.

Our brains are wired this way due to evolution. An advanced sense of vision allowed primitive humans to quickly react to danger. It also enabled our forerunners to perceive opportunities and coordinate, such as when hunting. And of course, survival is no good unless we remember those things by associating what we’ve learned from experience with the corresponding visual cues.

Vision is a complex function that helps us to rapidly process an even more complicated field of information. It does that by allowing us to focus on what’s important and eliminate what’s boring. When you step outside, whether you’re in a real jungle or an urban one, your eyes scout for threats: a wild animal, or an incoming vehicle. A world of sensory detail is parsed down in seconds to what matters.

man pointing at monitor

Visual storytelling across domains

This power isn’t limited to what we see in person. It translates to visual media, such as photography. A picture paints a thousand words, but not all pictures tell a story. What sets a professional photographer’s work apart from the amateur’s? It’s their ability to clearly convey emotion and meaning through imagery alone.

Given the vast improvements in quality when it comes to mobile phone camera technology, anyone can take a photograph with their smartphone. They can apply various filters using apps on that same device, and create good-looking images that are ready to post to social media.

But companies don’t just hire anyone with a smartphone to create marketing collateral. It’s not about simply taking pictures that look good. Those pictures need to be composed in a specific way to highlight important features while removing unnecessary details from focus or cropping them out entirely.

Making those staging and editing decisions requires a different skill: visual storytelling. And it’s the same sort of storytelling that goes into good data visualization. Many employees in a company can hack away at Excel or PowerPoint and come up with a graph or chart out of a given data set. But do those visuals really bring anything new to the table? Do they help to instantly relay the essence of what’s important within your data?

A Team effort

Effective data visualization lies at the intersection of several disciplines. Most notable among them are art, science, and data analysis, in addition to whatever specialized field an organization does business in.

Because it’s a complex endeavor, you can never leave this task to AI. Sure, there are many useful, high-powered, and sophisticated tools for business intelligence that can help out. Software like Microsoft Power BI and Google Analytics can churn out far more effective visuals than what you get out of standard Office templates.

But only a human, crunching the numbers to understand what truly matters, is capable of filtering out the noise on behalf of the less-invested, inclined, or skilled. Within any company, there may be only a handful of people capable of both processing this information and taking the time to do so. And if you throw in the required skill of visual storytelling, that number could go down to zero.

This is why data visualization is at its best when carried out in a team setting. Multiple disciplines are required. Human input is non-negotiable. Why search for a unicorn capable of doing everything, when you can bring together thought leaders, subject matter experts, and the design-inclined within your team? Collaborate, and you can present the data in a form that’s instantly accessible to all stakeholders.

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