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Reality is too real. Data is too abstract. Visualization is just right.

We earthlings have it good. If earth’s orbit was a little closer to the sun it would be too hot; a little further and it would be too cold. Where earth sits is just right, an area otherwise known as the Goldilocks Zone.

If analytics is the solar system, then data visualization is its Goldilocks zone. On one side is reality, which is too detailed and complex to fully comprehend. On the other side is raw data, which is also difficult to understand because it is too abstract. For analytics to be useful, it must sit somewhere in the middle — not too real and not too abstract. …


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Organizations provide goods and services people want. Visualization helps them do it better.

Every organization has a unique reason for existing, or else they don’t exist for long — they make an interesting product, deliver stuff faster, or provide better service. The ones that continue to exist also have a plan for how they will provide that value. This is called strategy.

A well-articulated strategy helps people in an organization know what to do and how to do it in a way that complements the work around them. However, a strategy can’t just be thought out, it must be shown and reinforced with the people responsible for doing the work. …


One simple mantra that helps create data visualizations that matter to others

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There is a word that stands among the worst of all words. Hearing it causes feelings of confusion, anger, and sadness. That word is report.

I take people’s data and organize it in a visual format that helps them understand and react to their world a little better, and there are perfectly acceptable terms to describe this, such as dashboard, visualization, or visualisation if you prefer the Queen’s English. Just don’t call it a report.

A giant table jammed packed with every tidbit of info that could possibly be relevant is what I’d call a report. It makes no effort to clarify or convey a point of view. …


The Five Types of People Who Use Visualization
The Five Types of People Who Use Visualization

Not all visualizations are created equal — some educate, some help to get a job done, and some simply amaze. The audience is clear on which one they want, but all too often they get a one-size-fits-all solution where some needs are met only some of the time. As my daughter’s preschool teacher liked to say, “You get what you get, and don’t pitch a fit.”

In the recent past, limitations in the tools and techniques of data visualization made this a reasonable approach. However, the proliferation of accessible tools and masters to learn from has dramatically decreased the time and cost of creating customized visualizations for a diverse set of users. …


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Tableau is an amazing tool that has made data visualization accessible for many who would otherwise be limited to a world of Excel and PowerPoint. For me it opened the door to a deeply satisfying career where I get to spend all day making visualizations for large companies. My slightly better than average data skills and slightly better than average design skills didn’t get me far but combining them with Tableau has allowed me to deliver value to clients in a way that was not possible 10–15 years ago.

With that said, the tool has limitations. This is isn’t a knock but rather an acknowledgment that developers for any tool must decide which type of use cases to solve, which by definition alienates all the other potential use cases. After many years of building Tableau solutions for a diverse set of clients, it was inevitable that some of those solutions would require features that Tableau is not explicitly designed to solve. Fortunately Tableau is flexible enough that a workaround can usually be found with a little creativity and a lot of googling. …


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Story is the best form of communication we have. To the steely-eyed analyst, it may seem superfluous and manipulative — a way to persuade with emotion instead of facts. While it is true that some have used story to mislead and befuddle, to discard it altogether is like blaming shoes for an inability to dunk a basketball. Stories aren’t the problem; false stories are. The goal of the analyst, then, is not to avoid stories, but to tell better ones.

Not only is story an effective way to communicate, for the data analyst it is unavoidable, because every presentation of data tells a story whether it is intended or not. If the story isn’t made explicit, the audience will make one up. …


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Have something to say. Anyone can create a 20x20 table of 8 pt font data. It shows how hard you worked — it also says, “I have no idea what any of this means. Good luck!”

Data doesn’t have to be bland and confusing. Imagination and purpose can bring any subject to life. Connect with something people care about and you will be interesting. All data has a story to tell, so don’t create one pixel until you are clear about what it says and why anyone should care.

Most companies I’ve worked for expect dense visuals — whitespace is merely a placeholder for future content. You may be familiar with the well worn path to bad analytics: a decision is needed and data is gathered, visuals are created and everybody works hard, but little is learned. …

About

Dan Gastineau

Visual Analytics Practice Lead at Aspirent Consulting

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