The Secret to Becoming a Better Data Visualization Practitioner

Brit Cava
Brit Cava
Jan 29, 2018 · 4 min read

I’m often asked: “How do I become a better data visualization designer?” For quite some time I’ve struggled to come up with concrete advice to offer especially as I’ve come to realize when people ask this question they could actually mean a variety of things:

  • How do I get better at design?
  • How do I get better at Tableau?
  • How do I get better at business analysis?

At minimum, I usually recommend these tips:

  1. A few beginner resources from foundational books to websites or course that can help them make design decisions.
  2. Some people to follow for inspiration and motivation.
  3. Soliciting feedback from others and refining their work.
  4. Practice, practice, practice.

While these tips are great activities to be in the habit of utilizing and practicing, they don’t address the more difficult in-between skills that take someone from good to great with regards to data visualization design and execution. Want to become a great data visualization practitioner? Get really good at articulating your design decisions.

Articulating design is quite challenging, especially as you grow in your career and your decisions become more instinctual. How do you logically express a decision you made from muscle memory?

When you can’t articulate your designs more clearly:

  • it’s going to be difficult to build trust and buy-in to your designs
  • you’ll struggle to evolve your design because you’ll likely be receiving many recommendations as your stakeholders try to help
  • the frustration you’ll feel may challenge your creative process and ultimately impact the end product
  • you’ll start to focus on keeping up with the “design by committee” tweaks and lose track of the visualization goal(s) to begin with

But what does it mean to be articulate? It means you’re able to share the research your decisions are grounded in and can express all the intentions behind each part of your visualization. If you can express these two things with confidence, your stakeholders will respect and trust you. When you discuss best practices or cite evidence from research to articulate your decisions, it shows you’re using logic versus feelings which is hard to argue with and instead opens the door to constructive conversations around the design.

Here are three strategies you can begin integrating into your routine to better articulate your data visualization design:

  1. Document Unconscious Choices: When presenting to stakeholders it’s common to focus on the macro-decisions, changes, and features you’ve made, but it may be difficult to justify these decisions without the context of the many micro-decisions which lead you to your current state. By keeping these small decisions documented it saves you from having to think of them on the spot while in front of an audience when you may feel forgetful or be short on time.
    To prepare for this, consider getting into the habit of writing down the little decisions you make along the way to ultimately arrive at the final decision. I personally use Trello for this where in a card about a feature I’m working on I’ll list briefly the problem and the solution. If it’s a bug, I’ll capture the issue, the cause, and my resolution. Again, very succinctly so that it’s not too much of an extra burden for me but is enough detail for future reference.
    I’ve found this technique helps me and my stakeholders. For me, this type of documentation helps me avoid making the same mistake twice and enables me to recall why I made a particular decision, especially for longer projects. For my stakeholders, I’m quickly able to provide more information when a decision is questioned and walk through my thought process more in depth.
  2. Focus Your Response: Now that you have notes to draw upon, how you deliver your response can make a big difference in how it’s received. Tom Greever, in his book Articulating Design Decisions, suggests stating the problem your decision solved, how it affects the user(s), and why it’s better than the alternative. If you can get into the habit of discussing your decisions in this way it will lead to much more productive conversations. Even if your stakeholder(s) still disagree in the end, they’ll be much more willing to trust you because you’ll have demonstrated how much thought you put into your decision.
  3. Visualize the Difference: As data visualization practitioners, we know how much research has been done to prove just how effective visualizing information for human cognition. We can use this as well to illustrate what we’re discussing by doing things like: showing a before and after picture, sketching on the whiteboard, or tweaking things on the fly if the tool allows for it. It’s easy to forget that not everyone visualizes data on a daily basis. So remember, it can be hard for your stakeholder(s) to mentally visualize what you’re describing or they may be misinterpreting what you’re saying. By visually showing what you’re describing, you’ll ensure you’re all on the same page.

How do you become a better data visualization practitioner? Get really good at articulating design. It will help build your confidence, gain the trust of your stakeholder(s), and ultimately lead to better outcomes.

What techniques have you found successful in articulating design?

This post is part of a series of reflections based off chapters from Tom Greever’s Articulating Design Decisions upon which I’ll share stories and additional thoughts as it pertains to the practice of creating data visualizations.

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