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If you want to do it right - keep it simple

April 16, 2013

The next time you are constructing an analysis, include only what adds value to the person consuming the information. The best visualization rules are what not to do.

In April 2013, 450 IT and BI professionals, data analysts, and other information specialists from all over Denmark took part in a two-hour session on data visualization. (That may not seem like a lot of people offhand, but it’s a huge number of people in a country as small as Denmark with a focus as specific as data visualization. On top of that, the word was that more people were on a wait list.)

I’m speaking about the Inspari event featuring Stephen Few. Inspari runs an excellent event, and they should be proud of what they accomplished in the lead-up to and execution of the event. There is one very obvious reason why they were so successful: they kept it simple.

If you are unfamiliar with Few, he is the guy behind the “bullet graph”, and one of the most renowned people in data visualization. Many of the world’s biggest companies, organizations, and universities turn to him when they need help, and for good reason. If you work in a field where you have to present data to others, I strongly recommend you check out his site, and consider picking up his books. 

On my way over there, a few of my colleagues and I were talking about what we thought Few was going to cover. I was hoping he would be specific, offering useful rules that would allow us to go home and create some perfect dashboards. My expectations were a little unreasonably high. There is no set of rules that can help us tell good stories with our data, and I know that, but when you are excited about something, you sometimes forget all you have learned for a short while.

So what did we take away from the session? One valuable lesson was about the importance of visualization, particularly when compared to numbers/text alone. I know this, working with Business Intelligence & Analytics for a living, and I imagine everybody in the room had some concept of it as well. We wanted to learn how to do it better, and in my opinion the entire sessions could be summarized to “keep it simple”.

Data Visualization

Few showed us some examples of do’s and don’ts in data visualization, and it became clear quickly how simplicity in visualization adds value. Consider the user or customer perspective, and take out anything that does not add value to them. You end up with something that’s easy to understand, and shows them exactly what they need. It’s a principle that can be compared to the idea of lean manufacturing.

The next time you are constructing an analysis, include only what adds value to the person consuming the information. The best visualization rules are what not to do: don’t add unnecessary 3D, don’t add gradients in the background, and try to use something different then a pie chart. You will often find bar or other charts more effective in communicating the story behind the data.

Keep it simple, and you’ll get the job done.

DANISH: Se, hvordan du kan redesigne dine analyser 

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