Stop Visualizing Data!

You work in a small company that has a program to help consumers manage their health. Your basic product involves a mobile app for tracking daily events and a personalized dashboard. For a monthly subscription users can also get access to coaching and other resources.

There’s a meeting with a potential investor on the calendar and you want to use data to support your story that things are going well. So, you open up Excel and start digging through the data you have.

Finding the Story

You got some nice local news coverage back in March and you signed your first partnership in June, both of which resulted in a spike of app downloads. So, you look at that.

1-downloads

Well, that’s something, but it doesn’t really communicate the excitement of the last few months. You remember that a lot of those downloads in the spring never turned into even free accounts. So, you decide to look at new accounts instead of downloads.

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That looks more like what you were expecting. Whereas the app downloads spiked in March, the new accounts hit a peak in July. Comparing the two graphs, you become curious as to how many new accounts were linked to the news coverage and the partnership, so you draw another graph.

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This view makes it clear that by the time the July peak hit, the effect of the news story had died. The big spike in July was just the partnership. You kind of knew this, but it’s the first time you’ve seen a picture of it, which is pretty cool.

You remember that your company has a 20% download-to-account conversion target, and you want to see how many of these months hit that. This seems like a good situation for a scatter plot:

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Wow. Comparing against the diagonal line that represents the 20% target, you can see July and August blew it away, while March and April didn’t even come close.

You note another promising detail on the spreadsheet. Not only are accounts up, but the percentage of accounts that are paid subscriptions is rising as well. This is good for revenue, which investors obviously care about.

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You wonder how many of the paid accounts come from the new partnership, so you look at that.

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Clearly, the partnership has been a great thing for your company. Armed with these insights you put together a nice summary in dashboard form for your investor. You add a few other interesting tidbits (you know from your market researcher that about two-thirds of your paid account holders are women) to make it visually interesting.

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When you walk a few of your colleagues through it you get some nice comments—this is the first time some of them have seen all this information together like this—but when you present it the following day, your potential investor squints at the wall and tries to figure out what’s going on

Visualize Situations, Not Data

When you start by looking at the data you have and concentrate on how to draw a picture of it, it’s easy to lose track of the message. Overwhelming your audience with data is an easy trap to fall into. The person crafting a dashboard (or an article, or a presentation, or a web page) knows the content backwards and forwards and can unconsciously assume that the audience is on the same page.

A graph is a picture of a situation. The trick to creating a good one is to start by identifying a situation that your audience cares about. In some cases, you may know. Your investors probably care more about revenue (and projected growth) than they do about specific conversion rates.

8-revenue

This graph describes a situation that investors will understand: Revenue is going up due to a partnership, and more partnerships and more revenue are on the way.

Often you won’t know what situations your audience cares about, even when you think you do. A clinician who is monitoring a heart failure population may not need to know about her patient’s every movement but does care if he has become less active over the past few days. A credit card customer looks at a breakdown of his purchases out of idle curiosity, but what he really wants to know is how he can maximize the frequent flyer miles he earns by using his card. A patient doesn’t understand what her deductible is, but she does want to know which insurance plan is going to cost her less over the coming year.

It’s not fair to throw data at people and expect them to decode it. Just as with any design, effective data visualization requires you to understand the situations that are significant to your audience. By starting there, you can use data to describe something they will care about.

Useful Data Visualizations

There are a lot of ways you can visualize data, and there’s no shortage of best practices out there for making your charts and graphs. Best practices only take you so far, however. I’ll be talking about how a user’s context and goals inform useful data visualizations at the UXPA’s February meeting, next Thursday, February 11. Event details are here. Also: jokes. Hope to see you there!

View Jeff’s SlideShare Presentation

Visualize Nothingness

By Jeff Harrison

It’s an exciting time to be me! If this email I got from LinkedIn is any guide, my career is about to really take off.

linkedin

Also, this email from my bank shows my rewards balance on this credit card remains at an all-time high. (I don’t know what “Earn More Mall Earnings” means but as someone who lives within a hypothetical short drive of the Mall of America I’m pretty stoked.)

rewards

To top it off, according to this visualization in ClassDojo, my kid is rocking Spanish class. The chart helps me see that all of the feedback from his teacher is positive.

class dojo

All these displays have one thing in common: underwhelming data. I do not actively promote my profile on LinkedIn [edited to add link to LinkedIn profile], and my son’s Spanish teacher never got into the habit of using ClassDojo to communicate with parents. I never signed up for the rewards program for which I receive the monthly grid of zeroes above; they just started showing up in my email a year or two ago. (The program is attached to an overdraft protection feature that Wells Fargo couldn’t figure out how to implement without issuing me a second debit card, which I routinely cut in half each time I get a new one.)

It’s easy to imagine the design reviews for these interfaces. Colorful charts! Insights! Engagement! When there’s a match between the data in these displays and what customers care about optimizing, magic happens: think of all the Fitbit users who consult their apps to monitor their steps and optimize their day for physical activity. The data contributes to a feedback loop, and more people take the stairs. However, when there’s a mismatch the displays aren’t motivating. They just feel kind of lame.

Do your user research. Get it right. And stop sending me notifications that suggest my life is somehow disappointing. Because LinkedIn and my mom would both tell you different:

allstar

The "So What": Telling Stories with Data


When we review a presentation before showing it to a client, someone often asks about the “so what.” Your findings seem reasonable, but so what? What do you want your audience to learn? What action should they take as a result?

If there are charts and graphs in the presentation, those also have to support the “so what.” You can’t just look at data and pick the optimal visualization. You’ll get better results if you first figure out the point you’re making, then design the graph as a supporting illustration.

The Storytelling with Data blog, written by Cole Nussbaumer, is not the only place to learn about good data visualization practices, but it has a more holistic view of communication than many. Yes, Cole talks about the pros and cons of bars, lines, and (shudder) pies, but she goes beyond that to discuss titles, labels, and other accompanying text, and how the shapes and the words come together to make meaning happen.

One of the reasons I like Cole’s blog is that she trades in small data. Her examples tend to feature manageable data sets that might inspire normal people to whip up a graph. So, when she announced a visualization challenge a couple of weeks ago the goal was not to inspire the kind of kinetic sculpture that big companies use to brand themselves as innovators. It was simply to improve upon a set of world population graphs published by The Economist.

While the challenge was to remake the visuals, the biggest problem with the original was the lack of a clear point. The text accompanying the graph was a laundry list of observations:

“The number of people will grow from 7.3 billion to 9.7 billion in 2050, 100m more than was estimated in the UN’s last report two years ago. More than half of this growth comes from Africa, where the population is set to double to 2.5 billion. Nigeria’s population will reach 413m, overtaking America as the world’s third most-populous country. Congo and Ethiopia will swell to more than 195m and 188m repectively, more than twice their current numbers. India will surpass China as the world’s most populous country in 2022, six years earlier than was previously forecast. China’s population will peak at 1.4 billion in 2028; India’s four decades later at 1.75 billion. Changes in fertility make long-term projections hard, but by 2100 the planet’s population will be rising past 11.2 billion. It will also be much older. The median age of 30 will rise to 36 in 2050 and 42 in 2100—the median age of Europeans today. A quarter of Europe’s people are already aged 60 or more; by 2050 deaths will outnumber births by 32m. The UN warns that only migration will prevent the region’s population from shrinking further.”

What I get from this is, there are going to be a lot more people. Okay. So what?

To me, the big story in the data was the massive projected growth of Africa, and the problems that it could spell for billions of people. Here’s what I made (click to embiggen):

swdChallenge

There were other interesting observations that could have been made, but I picked the story that seemed compelling to me and focused on that. The great thing, though, was that other people chose different points (for example, the shifting makeup of the world’s overall population, or how the projections fit with historical trends), and most of them improved on the original in some way. The variety of stories and approaches are on display on the round-up published yesterday, along with Cole’s critique.

Data can clarify, illustrate, and convince, but it doesn’t speak for itself. If you want it to support what you want to say, you have to figure out the “so what” first.

Working in Context with Axure 8

By Jeff Harrison

The Axure 8 beta dropped yesterday, and as always there’s a lot to take in. Some of the new features are pretty flashy: updated animation options mean you can finally flip and spin things—at the same time! There are tools for creating custom shapes, repeater updates, and lots of other improvements that will help you make fancier prototypes, if that’s your thing.

The changes I’m happiest to see are the ones that promise to improve the way I work in Axure by allowing me to work on things in their context, instead of having to switch to one mode where I’m editing in isolation, and then back to see the results of what I’ve done.

There are three examples of this that stick out at me right away.

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You Still Have to Do the Work

By Jeff Harrison

Here’s a common exchange when I’m talking to a prospective client (let’s call him “Steve”) about an Axure workshop:

Me: Tell me a little bit about how you see your team using Axure.

Steve: We’re using all kinds of tools today. Some people are using Visio, some are using PowerPoint. The designers are using Photoshop and OmniGraffle. It’s all over the map. Everybody’s stuff looks different. We have decided to standardize on Axure, so the purpose of this training is to get people up to speed.

Me: Okay, that makes sense. Is there anything you know you want to focus on?

Steve: I’m extremely interested in the custom libraries that Axure has, so we can all be working with the same components. We spend too much time reinventing the wheel today. I definitely hope that these libraries are part of the training.

Me: Sure, I can cover that. What are you doing today to try to standardize components?

Steve: As I said, it’s all over the map. We have no standards.

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Future-Proofing Your Prototypes

The folks at Axure (our go-to tool for rapid UI prototyping) just blogged a conversation with our own Jeff Harrison. Jeff has been using Axure for a long time and is no stranger to the headaches that can come with prototyping interactions. In this post he lays down some rules to manage that complexity, or even avoid it altogether, with the goal of making your life a lot easier when a client asks for just one “small” change.

Of course, all that happens while discussing the workings of a complex prototype that Jeff created as a demo for the Chicago Axure Users Meetup a while back, so consider yourself warned.

Allison O'Connor Speaks On Leading Healthcare Change

Allison O’Connor has been invited to speak at the 2015 Insignia Health Client Summit on Health Activation in Portland, Oregon. Her talk, “Leading Change in Dynamic Healthcare Organizations,” shares proven concepts, tools, and approaches for organizations implementing key initiatives. Allison will speak on the morning of May 6, followed by a client panel. Attendees include large and small provider groups and systems from around the country.

Allison leads strategic planning, operational improvement projects, and M&A project management for Evantage clients. She has worked with national provider and payor systems, regional health systems and critical access hospitals and clinics. In 2012, Allison was awarded the Top Women in Finance award by Finance & Commerce magazine.

Allison O’Connor Speaks On Leading Healthcare Change

Allison O’Connor has been invited to speak at the 2015 Insignia Health Client Summit on Health Activation in Portland, Oregon. Her talk, “Leading Change in Dynamic Healthcare Organizations,” shares proven concepts, tools, and approaches for organizations implementing key initiatives. Allison will speak on the morning of May 6, followed by a client panel. Attendees include large and small provider groups and systems from around the country.

Allison leads strategic planning, operational improvement projects, and M&A project management for Evantage clients. She has worked with national provider and payor systems, regional health systems and critical access hospitals and clinics. In 2012, Allison was awarded the Top Women in Finance award by Finance & Commerce magazine.

Remembering Robin

robin

This week our team came together to remember Robin Carpenter, who put as much energy into the people around her as she did into her own impressive career. The strong turnout from alumni, even on short notice, was particularly touching. Robin was a source of encouragement, actionable advice, and the occasional practical joke for dozens of consultants who have called Evantage home. As her remembrance in the Star Tribune said, “Robin was a gifted mentor to many, helping to inspire and propel leaders everywhere she went.”

A commemorative celebration will be held on Saturday, April 25, at the Woman’s Club of Minneapolis (410 Oak Grove St., 55403): visitation starting at 3:00, celebration at 4:00, social thereafter. Memorials preferred to one of Robin’s favorite non-profits: the Minnesota Opera, the University of Minnesota Veterinary Hospital, or the Golden Valley Humane Society.

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