8 Ways to Turn Good Data into Great Visualizations

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Getting a look inside your business is desirable, right?  That’s why millions of people and businesses have turned to data visualization—to clearly see how their business is really running and to get a good picture of how outside influences may impact their business performance.

Are you sure the visual representations you’re looking at on your executive dashboard are really telling an accurate story?  Poorly designed data representations can distort the message of your data, lose people’s attention, or fail to guide them toward meaningful conclusions. For example, great visualization design is the difference between this chaotic bunch of lines,


...and this neatly-organized stacked bar graph.


For analytics, data discovery and business intelligence to be truly effective, it helps to know how to best design, create and integrate data visualizations into your business. As business insight specialists, we’d like to share some expert advice on how to quickly transform your data visualizations from good to great.

To be sure your data visualizations don’t magnify confusion or cause misinterpretation – you’ll want to paint a clear picture and tell a good story. Or as Lindy Ryan, Research Director for Radiant Advisors says:

“Successful data visualization requires employing
the right design principles to curate a meaningful story.”

1. Know What You Want to Say

Mixed messages on the same dashboard leave your audience confused. Don’t make people ‘interpret’ your message. Deliver ONE strong message by focusing the data you present to ensure a central theme emerges.  Are your dashboards telling the right story? Find out here.

In this example, it’s unclear what question is being answered.

2. Construct a Good Story

The way you organize and present your content can facilitate a clearer understanding. Group your visualizations so that each element within a dashboard reinforces your overall message. Ensure every metric and visualization is relevant, so viewers can easily draw the conclusion you wish to illustrate. If you’re not sure how intuitively your graphic is communicating, test it with several people on your team for feedback before publishing.

Here, goals and progress towards goals are clearly presented.


3. Design for the Viewer’s Eye

Organize visuals in a manner that builds understanding, naturally.  Make sure your visualization facilitates natural eye movement. As the audience follows the narrative flow of your dashboard, ensure they are following a logical sequence of layered data; start with broader information and allow users to explore. This data hierarchy places high-level visualizations at the top
followed by detailed visualizations at the bottom.


4. Add Color to the Story

In data visualizations, color should not be used for decorative or non-informational purposes. Instead, use color to show your audience what question you are answering. Use it to clarify and make your specific business insight pop, like whether performance is good or bad. Most people associate green with positive or above-goal measurements, while judicial use of red generally indicates peril or numbers that need improvement.


5. Don’t Crowd Your Audience

You will want to give your audience room to breathe and process what you’re presenting.  So just think ‘less is more.’ Reduce redundant chart labels. Remove excessive boxes or lines that separate data. Avoid visual clutter by utilizing white space to encourage people to clearly see and really absorb your message.   

 Visual design hinges not on embellishment, but on removing
and simplifying until nothing stands between message and audience.

–  Lindy Ryan, Research Director for Radiant Advisors

6. Establish Context  

Often, a clear picture can say a thousand words. But are they the ones you want?  Every viewer may not have the appropriate context to draw your desired conclusions. A little bit of text annotation can go a long way to ground the viewer in the appropriate frame of reference.


7. Combine Text with Tables & Charts   

Don’t overwhelm users with too much information out of the gate. First, enable them to recognize patterns easily by choosing the proper visual for your message. Then, make it easy for people to get interactive and dig in at their own pace for more details. Non-intrusive text helps to increase  understanding without detracting from a visual’s meaning.  

8. Make Your Visual Actionable

When a visual naturally transforms data into knowledge, it is telling a specific story. It’s been found effective to use a one-visual-to-one-story ratio so each data viz is focused and clear. But you want to do more than just present information, right?  To inspire questions, encourage dialogue or incite specific action, guide your audience with visual clues. The more easily understood your call-to-action, the more people will willingly interact with your insight, brainstorm solutions and implement recommendations.


Compelling data visualizations and dashboards do more than just look nice or attract attention. They tell stories that convey meaning and increase understanding. They present insight, provoke thought and spur action. By making our data visualizations more effective, more of us can literally see into our companies at a glance, and more quickly instigate change.

The clearer pictures that your visualizations paint, the easier it is to lock onto insight and the more quickly you can put that insight into action. 


July 28, 2015
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