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Data Visualization Best Practices That Tell the Data Story

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Data in isolation can be difficult to present, challenging to understand and nearly impossible to effectuate. Business leaders must be able to represent data in a compelling, easy-to-understand story so that it has actionable meaning for the groups it serves. How do we do that? With data visualization.

An advanced business degree in information analytics and decision making can set professionals up for success to collect, analyze and present data to their organizations.

The Statistics Tell the Story

Data visualization is the proven way to help our brains process data in order to gain insights. Consider these statistics:

  • Ninety percent of the information transmitted to the brain is visual.
  • The human brain can process an image in just 13 milliseconds (MIT).
  • Fifty percent of the brain is active in visual processing (Piktochart).

Here is a glimpse into how the neuro processing of data visualizations manifests in business:

  • The Wharton School of Business found that while only half of an audience found a purely verbal presentation convincing, but that number jumped to over two-thirds when visuals were added.
  • The same Wharton School of Business study found that the use of data visualizations could shorten business meetings by 24% (American Management Association).
  • One business technology group, Forrester, estimates that between 60 and 73% of a company’s data goes unused because executives do not have the adequate resources to translate data into information they can analyze and understand.

Data itself can help us rationalize large numbers and simplify complex ideas, but information visualization can take this several steps further. Effective use of data visualization appeals to the natural processes of the brain. It results in stronger and faster executions on business decisions and greater frequency in using data for gleaning business insights and making effective, timely decisions.

The following best practices will enable you to reap the benefits of data visualization for your organization:

Identify High Priority Personas for Your Data

When creating data visualizations for a presentation or report, consider your specific audience or audience segments. What are their roles and responsibilities and how will they use this information in their jobs? What challenges do they face and how might appropriate visualizations help them to understand the material in order to derive meaningful insights and make effective decisions?

To answer these questions, create user personas — the archetypical users whose needs represent the full group. For example, operations managers in a manufacturing company may do best with simple binary visualizations, while C-suite executives making strategic marketing decisions may benefit most from time-series data shown in bar graphs.

Know Which Types of Visualizations Suite Your Data

Every type of data visualization has strengths and weaknesses, and audiences can benefit differently from conveyed information. For example, tables present detail in a small space but make it difficult to see high-level trends or patterns. Conversely, bar graphs and line charts track trends, show relationships between variables and help to compare quantities but are not effective at diving deeper into the data. Scatterplots and bubble charts are excellent ways to convey correlations, while pie charts show fractions of a whole in a visually meaningful way.

Represent Data with Predictable and Clean Patterns

You must present data in an order and format that is easy to visually digest, or you will risk miscommunication with your audience. Consider whether it makes sense to present in an alphabetic, numeric or sequential format. For graphs with text, consider left-to-right presentations that make the text easy to read, with the information in descending quantities (rather than randomized). In a line graph, do not try to represent too many variables, or you will have an overwhelming collection of information rather than a clear portrayal of the data.

Test your presentation with a small focus group that will tell you if the connections between the data are clear and lead to the correct inferences. Your instincts can lead you astray if you have been too close to the project for too long; rely on fresh eyes.

Create Rich, Engaging Formats for Savvy Users

In some cases, the data visualizations you will create are not final representations but tools with ongoing use. If your user group will need to manipulate the data and presentation, change variables, drill down or discover more patterns, you should use advanced data visualization software with user experience (UX) features that enable further discovery.

Use Microsoft Excel for Data Visualization

Excel offers many types of charts, graphs and tables, and the tool is ideal for experimentation with data visualizations. Excel has a number of data visualization abilities including slicer filtering, tile flow navigation, tile containers, line charts, pie charts, bar charts, scatter and bubble charts, maps, matrices and more.

The human brain is hard-wired to understand information presented in visual contexts. Therefore, developing your data visualization capabilities in an academic setting will make you a solid asset for any data-driven organization.

Learn more about Southern Oregon University’s online Master of Business Administration with a Concentration in Information Analysis and Decision-Making program.

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