Data Visualization “Therapy”
Because sometimes you just need to talk it out
I work as a Data Visualization Developer on a large data science team at Microsoft. A big part of my role involves meeting one-on-one with data scientists to help them design, implement, or improve their visualizations. Over 2+ years conducting these help sessions, I’ve converged on a few questions to help unpack the purpose of the chart and understand how it can be optimized. I jokingly call my process “data visualization therapy” because, unlike other makeover-esque critiques, the emphasis is on listening and understanding the data scientist’s intent, preferences, and constraints for their figures.
As it turns out, there is some precedent to the therapy joke. Danyel Fisher and Miriah Meyer, the authors of Making Data Visual, spend an entire chapter describing “data counseling” as the iterative and exploratory interview process leading up to a visualization. Their take on this concept is certainly worth a read, but in this article I’ll lay out the series of questions I personally ask during a visualization help session. You can judge the therapeutic benefits for yourself, but keep this list on hand for the next time you need to review a visualization. These questions work well for evaluating your own work, too!
What’s the primary comparison you’re trying to make?
This question should be asked regardless of how polished or complete the graphic seems at first glance. I’ve found that the response and what you see in the visual are not always totally aligned. Listen for comparison phrases with a “[Y][preposition][X]” pattern, like “change over time,” “difference across groups,” or “variation between individuals”; these phrases will tell you which variables to prioritize and how to orient them relative to each other in the visual. You can even sketch out a quick chart and label the axes with the X and Y from the comparison phrase.
This question is also an important sanity check if you are evaluating your own work. Compare your verbal answer to what actually appears in your visual.