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Data Visualisation: Top 5 tips for bringing data to life

Data Visualisation: Top 5 tips for bringing data to life

With the wealth of data available to us today, it is more important than ever to present it in a way that makes sense to your audience. Having a vast quantity of data at your fingertips is all well and good, but if you can’t utilise it to make decisions, or even make sense of it, it has no value.

That’s where Data Visualisation comes into play.

The primary objective of visualisation is to help people engage with the data, and possibly even understand something they might not have seen at first glance. So where do we begin? Before you get to the fun design bit, it’s important to identify the ‘story’ in your data. What narratives can you identify that help the reader engage with your data?

That leads nicely into the first of my 5 top tips for data visualisation:

1. Find a story and bring it to life

Visualisations can be produced from all kinds of data and for all kinds of audiences. This might lead you to believe that each visualisation is a unique problem with a unique solution, but the process is the same regardless of the output:

Data > Story > Charting > Design

If there’s one thing to take from this blog it’s this: story drives engagement and design brings people to the page – neither quite hits the spot without the other, like tea and biscuits.

Find a story and bring it to life
This visualisation tells a really compelling story in a really simple way. http://graphics8.nytimes.com/images/2013/02/17/opinion/17coontz2-map/17coontz2-map-popup.png

2. Keep it simple and stay focused

Complexity can be a visualisation’s demise, so the best visualisations take complex data and present it in a simple way. Simple visualisations are easy to digest and often more visually appealing, so before adding data to your visualisation think about whether it adds to your narrative. If it doesn’t add anything, or risks confusing the reader, leave it out.

Keep it simple and stay focused
The shapes and colours in this visualisation tell the story in a simple and visually appealing way.

3. Make your visualisations visual

Creating effective visualisations means striking the balance between information and visual appeal. Focus too heavily on one and you lose the other. This isn’t to say that visualisations can’t include a wealth of information, so long as this doesn’t detract from the visual impact.

Keep it simple and stay focused
The picture in this visualisation is enough to tell the story. For readers wanting a little more, the data has been included, but this doesn’t detract from the story. http://kai.sub.blue/en/africa.html

4. Follow the flow

We’ve talked about how visualisations should tell a story, but all good stories have a clear structure. Well thought out and structured visualisations express an idea by leading the reader from point to point. On the other hand, bad visualisations simply throw lots of data in graphs without considering how the reader is going to follow the narrative.

Follow the flow
This visualisation uses colour and layout to tell a clear story, drawing the reader’s eye from left to right and bottom to top. https://informationisbeautiful.net/visualizations/when-sea-levels-attack-2/

5. Making it interactive

All that being said, there are times when your data is too complex, telling too many stories, or constantly changing. In these cases, a static infographic might not cut it, and the best way to get the most out of your data is to enable the reader to interact with it themselves. Interactive visualisations can enable you to present complex data, but make sure you remember the top tips above: keep it simple and focus on the narrative.

Making it interactive
This interactive visualisation takes a great deal of data and presents it in a simple, visually appealing way. By clicking and dragging the timeline, the data expands and contracts. https://archive.nytimes.com/www.nytimes.com/interactive/2008/08/04/sports/olympics/20080804_MEDALCOUNT_MAP.html

Here are some other examples of interactive visualisations done right:

Olympic medals by country

Gay rights in the US

US gun deaths in 2013

Putting time into context

Final thoughts/ bonus tip: just because you can, doesn’t mean you should

Just because you have all this amazing data, don’t feel obliged to show it all. Think before you add more data.

Just because you can build all of these cool interactions, doesn’t mean you should. Think before you add another interactive feature.

Just because some of your audience are specialists or experts, don’t let their interests dominate. Define your core audience and focus on them.