Why Don’t You Explain This To Me Like I’m 5
Ironically, many of the most important steps to a compelling data viz happens before you ever add lines and colors to your canvas. The most important questions to ask yourself before creating a visualization is “why?” followed quickly by “so what?” More often than not, you will be creating these visualizations to compel some sort of decision or to empower a decision-maker(s) with the empirical evidence they need to choose to zig or to zag. Our job is to distill our heaps of data into the compelling story needed to drive action, and as such, deciding what data elements should *not* be on a visualization is often as important as what is on the visualization. Know your audience, know the business problem, and know what you are trying to show with the data.
Then belly-up to your canvas like Bob Ross.
There is a certain beauty in simple easy-to-understand visualizations that are crisp and clear. You want your audience to be discussing the merits of the analysis and recommendations, and fewer questions around the chart itself. This goes back to knowing your audience; folks that are accustom to violin charts and 3-dimensional histograms may get a lot out of those presentation styles. Others may not be ready for such an approach. In my consulting work, I will almost always use some combination of bars, lines, and scatters with very few exceptions into more exotic chart types. While I certainly could, I ask myself “so what?” and find myself pruning things down into easily-digestible nuggets.
Once your data are plotted, the next step is to really think through the “so what?” once again and what sort of response to the “now what?” are you hoping to achieve? Here, annotations, call-outs, highlighting, etc. come into play. We cannot expect our audience to immediately digest all of the datapoints with little-to-no-guidance. Offering up a point-of-view and a clear explanation of *why* you are showing this visualization and *what* you hope individuals take away from it is so, so important.
Finally, it is time for the jazz hands. Clever use of colors, contrast, fonts, and other stylistic choices can add a certain emotional pop to your story. Your audience will generally be human beings (I have yet to present to a parrot) and so will be more compelled to action by an aesthetically pleasing chart than the same data presented in black-and-white dot matrix stylings. Depending on the presentation medium, some level of interactivity and guided exploration and drill down can also be very powerful; anticipating certain questions and building in the answers through a tidy mouseclick or hoverover can turn a good visualization into a great one. In the words of Richard Gere, “Give ‘em the old razzle dazzle.”
By: Tom Halvorson