5 Data Visualization Best Practices

Emily Rugaber's picture

Social Media

Director, Best Practices
August 25, 2015

OK, so you’re comfortable building tables and charts--and you enjoy having creative freedom to choose how you present your visuals. But do you know how to get everyone else involved in the data viz design process? To effectively scale data visualization company-wide while still encouraging self expression, I offer five best practices I've learned from implementing BI & visualization strategies for large enterprises.

1.   Data visualizations are always used to empower your audience.

Make sure everyone knows the original reason why your organization invested in analytics in the first place. Information should inspire action. Creating nice visualizations and dashboards are not just an exercise in providing information to the masses. You want to do MORE than simply show your colleagues that you’re tracking performance, monitoring customer behavior and measuring effectiveness of processes.  

  • When developing a visualization or a dashboard, identify the highest priority persona. Who will be looking at this data? Resist the temptation to create a dashboard that meets the needs of every single stakeholder who might one day look at it.
  • Next, create a wireframe that answers the questions that will drive meaningful action in your organization. What KPIs are vital to answering strategic questions for your business? For example, measuring market share, while nice, likely won’t change significantly on a day to day basis. Define a threshold for concern for when market shares falls outside of statistically significant norms and create a visualization that quickly and easily identifies where there is a concerning trend. Taking this approach ensures your visualization contains actionable and meaningful content.
  • Next, for every visualization, ask “What actions do we want people to take with this insight?”  It is generally to align people with your mission and to empower them to act, backed by evidence.

2.   Provide Context: Always present performance measured against clear goals.

You’ll want to present metrics in comparison with set goals in your dataviz to help your audience better judge the numbers that they’re seeing. The clearer the story you present, the easier it is for them to know where improvements are required.

Color is an excellent data visualization technique to help demonstrate performance vs. goals. Here, color-coded metrics help viewers see at a glance which values are over a goal (green) and which are short of the goal (red).

3.   Keep visualizations and dashboards simple and digestible.

Content marketers have long known that content needs to be snackable, and this applies to dashboards, too!  If everyone is going to be creating their own data visualizations at your company, you’ll want them designing for maximum impact. GoodData has an in-house Data Visualization Competency Center that offers some wonderful Tips for Improving Data Visualizations. Check them out; they’ll help your dataviz designers better use white space and data hierarchy to tell clearer stories. When these type of design power practices are used, your improved visualizations will help various audiences to:

  • Quickly understand high-level overview information.
  • Help themselves to more information as needed.
  • More readily use your dataviz to answer questions and strategize effectively.  

4.   Choose the right visual for your purpose.

How do you know which type of data viz works best? Consider the following guidelines:

  • Line Charts track changes or trends over time and show the relationship between two or more variables.
  • Bar Charts are used to compare quantities of different categories.
  • Scatter Plots show joint variation of two data items.
  • Bubble Chart show joint variation of three data items.
  • Pie Charts are used to compare parts of a whole and should be used carefully. Never compare two pie charts without clearly noting that the size of the pie may have changed as well.


“Like data governance standards and policies, 
data visualization should also have a set of standards 
for design, development and storytelling.”

- Cecile Horsky, Sr. Manager, 
Automation & Data Assurance at Walgreens


5.   Design ways to keep users engaged.

You know how calendar reminders help guide your daily routine? Two ways you can encourage your employees to engage routinely with data discovery are:

  1. metric-driven notifications and
  2. regularly scheduled email reports.  

Both practices promote continued engagement and provide calls to action.   With automated notifications, alerts go out when key numbers on a dashboard drop below a defined threshold. Users are alerted to examine their KPIs and take action. Regular email reports are great for getting data visualizations to team members before a recurring meeting, promoting regular consumption of reports, and encouraging users to explore their dashboards in greater detail.

As data insights impact business, more people will crave access to your company’s cloud business intelligence capabilities.  By Creating a Data Visualization Culture, you can encourage systematized sharing of best practices to ensure information sharing is focused, strategic and effective.

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