Q&A: Strengths and weaknesses of visualisation platforms

Infogram was founded about five years ago in order to help people communicate their data in a clear and engaging way. Our main aim is to help marketers, media and other business professionals display their data visually without needing complex coding skills or years of design experience. Our users have created over 5 million infographics and charts that are viewed by tens of millions of people every month.

I became interested in data visualisation through my experience in marketing. When traffic analytics started becoming mainstream in the mid-2000’s, we saw how people’s understanding of their web traffic in visual terms would lead to them not only taking more informed action, but also taking more action about their business in general. Taking an abstract concept and displaying it visually makes it intuitive. Since then I’ve worked in a range of sectors, from visualising the contents of video clips, to helping people understand their place in the global economy. Data visualisations are visual metaphors for abstract concepts, and therefore are key tools to create more accurate, effective factual communications.

• Which sectors and companies are most likely to use a visualisation platform, and why?

It used to be that data visualisation was a very niche area - it was a walled garden looked after by the data scientists and analysts. However, we’ve seen a huge rise in the use of smart, visual storytelling in enterprises using it to communicate and make smart decisions that add business value, and this is where visualisation becomes key. For example, marketers generate huge amounts of customer data and information that highlights the successes (or failures) of a project, but reporting these in an actionable manner back to the business is a nightmare.

Since then it’s really spread across businesses both vertically by department and horizontally by sector. Now we work with sales teams, marketers, media & communications organisations, as well as professional data analysts who want to empower a larger part of their organisation to use data visualisation in their communications.

• What are the key use cases of these types of visuals?

I actually think some really interesting visuals are being created by media outlets just like ITProPortal. The advantage with data visualisation is that it can potentially be understood intuitively, and that’s a huge advantage in our always-on-24/7 media consumption experience. I have fantastic conversations with online publishers who move fast and enjoy experimenting with emerging technologies in order to stay relevant and grow their audience.

In a world where we see 3,000 online ads per day, it is not surprising that recent research found more than half of people (51 per cent) usually only read the headlines of articles, or just read the headline and quickly skim the rest. On average, only seven per cent of people will read more than five full articles in a day. As the war on attention gets more competitive, it’s great to see the media embracing new technologies.

We work with Fairfax Media in Australia who are creating some amazing data visualisations for their readers, and they’ve been reporting engagement rates more than double on articles that feature visualisation

• What are the strengths and weaknesses of visuals such as infographics and charts for businesses?

The strength is often the weakness – it is so easy to create a complex visualisation that is too smart for its own good, and its core message can be lost. In data visualisation more than perhaps anywhere else, less is more. The most important part to highlight is the difference in your data. One month is bigger than the others, one team performs better than the others, and so on. By just focusing on showing this change, you can already get across the main point of your message. 

Strengths and weaknesses are also often defined by the data source you are drawing upon. The obvious benefit of data visualisation is that you can take a spreadsheet, with millions of data points and show your results on a single interactive chart. The ability to do that simply didn’t exist 10-15 years ago.

The benefits of this are two-fold. Firstly, it’s great for reporting in to stakeholders, colleagues or customers that don’t have the time or knowledge to take a deep-dive into the data points themselves. Secondly, a lot of our users create visualisations to understand their own data – if the charts are easy and quick to create it’s a great way to see what your story looks like..

• Do visualisations risk oversimplification of complex ideas or the loss of detail?

While I typically laud simplicity over everything, this is a very good question. Sometimes you need to show more of the story. It really depends on how much context your audience needs to understand the message.  But if you try to show all your data on a single chart it will invariably become crowded and you lose a sense of what the data is trying to say.

In many ways, it’s best to embrace simplicity. Take that complex idea and break it into 3-4 easy to read, and thus understand, charts. One tool for this is describing the key messages of your data out loud:  for each separate sentence, you might need a separate chart. You can then tell a story with your data and go through them all in turn to get your point across.  And resist the urge to use unusual or different chart types or data visualisations just for the sake of novelty. Bar charts and line charts get most of the work done, especially with a data literate audience.

• Data visualisation is usually used in conjunction with data analytics. What are your thoughts on ‘big data’ and how it ties in with visualisation?

Big data is the description of the change in how we were doing business a couple of decades ago to today. With big data, we’ve seen a greater need for data visualisation, even if displaying that data itself is still a specialty field. Data can only tell the story you ask it to tell.

Generally, I find data visualisation is not used just in conjunction with analytics. Yes, analytics has done a lot to popularise data visualisations in organisations. Over a span of a few years, all of the tools and products we use at work now spew their own analytics at us if so desired. This proclivity for visualisation has lead to us expecting to see data displayed elsewhere, too: in our communications, in our decision making, even in our private lives – just look at the abundance of personal tracking devices that give you tiny charts right there on your wrist anytime you want.

• Why do you think some companies are still not using data to make informed business decisions?

Data used to be very difficult to work with and it easily becomes siloed away, trapped within Excel spreadsheets and quickly becomes outdated if not made available on time. I’ve also seen companies who meticulously collect all the data they can, yet when it comes time to make decisions, they rely on the same indicators they have used to make decisions for decades. And sometimes the profusion of data is just confusing - and when confused, people try to make safe, defensive decisions. Many business executives have been used to ‘trusting their gut’ for 20-30 years and it’s a slow process to change that mindset. I still hear people – and also catch myself– arguing the figures they have do not show the full story (particularly if they show an unpleasant truth). The hint of anything statistical can rouse deep suspicion as well,  because statistics show the ‘what’ and the ‘how’, not the ‘why’, and that can be an excuse not to engage.

• Finally, do you have any tips, or pitfalls to avoid, for businesses that are looking to start visualising their data?

Don’t show too many visualisations on the screen simultaneously, and don’t show too many data points in a single visualisation. Take your audience on ‘a data journey’. Once you display a chart or map, you have the chance to provide context and tell a story. That way your audience will have a much easier time following your presentation beginning to end. Use interactivity to hide some of detail, making it available only when the viewer interacts with the visualisation.

Remember that ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’ – add data and you have one compelling presentation. Strong visuals help trigger an emotional response. You should switch up the variety of your visuals to keep people excited and curious. A statistic, paired with a related visual, makes your presentation more visual, and therefore more engaging.

Remember that simple, clear visualisations can be understood intuitively. You can use this to your advantage. By showing a story instead of telling it, your audience will develop the insight themselves. This is more engaging, and more likely to lead the audience to agree with you, because you’ve helped them arrive at the same conclusion intuitively.

And finally, but most importantly, remember to keep it simple. Get rid of any elements that don’t add to your story. In the same way that clean visuals help people absorb complex information, unnecessary elements can be a distraction. Avoid confusing grid lines, cluttered legends, 3D imagery, drop shadows, wild colour palettes, illustrations, and anything that may detract from your message.

Mikko Järvenpää, CEO, Infogram
Image Credit: Sergey Nivens / Shutterstock