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Friday, June 21, 2024

Best Practices for Building Effective Data Visualizations

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One harsh truth about good ideas is that being “good” is not enough. Quite often, ideas must be sold to their intended audience. Knowing that, it’s the responsibility of anyone who advocates for data-driven decisions must ensure that the ideas they promote are both digestible and meaningful.

While there are more than just a few ways to approach this challenge, creating data visualizations is, perhaps, one of the best ways to sell data-derived concepts to a wide range of stakeholders. Whether your audience is comprised of laypeople, busy managers, or other stakeholders who have yet to understand what your data means, creating effective visual representations will mean a serious difference in getting your points across and earning buy-in for whatever you want to champion.

Of course, not all data visualizations are alike. With so many data visualizations bombarding our attention at work and on social media, only the exceptional ones have a hope of standing out. Let’s look at several key practices that form the foundation of effective data-driven visual content:

1. Increase Your Data Analytics Capabilities

Before you can tell a story through data, you must actually know what the data is saying. This means developing an advanced understanding of what the numbers on your analytics tools mean in real-world terms. Fortunately, while not every organization is lucky enough to have skilled data analytics professionals on their roster, it’s possible to hire qualified agencies to fill capabilities gaps in these areas, as needed.

2. Get to Know Your Audience

When communicating with your audience, you want to make sure that what you’re saying is tailored to the expertise and perspective of those you’re addressing. For instance, a presentation that’s full of in-house references and acronyms may be fine for an internal presentation, but it can be incomprehensible when reaching out to new clients or the general public. Take the time to learn about your intended audience and shape your visuals and materials to resonate with their specific needs and pain points.

3. Pick an Appropriate Chart Type

Bar charts, line charts, pie charts, and scatter plots can all represent the same data. However, each format can give the numbers a different spin. A pie chart, for example, should be used to display proportions or percentages while a line chart should be used to represent growth. Learn the limitations of each format and pick the one that best helps the narrative you want to convey.

4. Provide Clear Context

Unless your audience is already intimately familiar with the topic, always provide context for your data. Including relevant background information helps audiences understand the significance of the data and can help the raw numbers come alive, helping the emotional resonance of your presentation. A simple yet effective way to do this is by creating labels that ensure the significance of each visualization element is clear and easy to understand. Every label should accurately represent the data in as unambiguous a way as possible to avoid confusion among the intended audience.

5. Simplify and Focus

While you want to remove ambiguity, you must avoid including too many elements on any one part of a visualization—and this includes captions and labels. This may seem contradictory to the previous best practice but it is, in fact, complementary in that it keeps your audience focused on the narratives you want to convey.

6. Maintain Brand and Design Consistency

Consistency is a key part of delivering an effective message in any medium, with visualizations being no different. Staying consistent with your visual elements is especially helpful for regular presentations as it also helps users compare different visualizations more easily. 

Just as importantly, the included design elements should not only improve comprehension but also serve a wider brand narrative when possible. As such, it usually pays to limit the design elements to whichever ones are in line with your organization’s brand.

7. Highlight Insights

Strategically include attention-calling visual cues such as contrasting colors and animations to highlight important insights or trends within the data. Directing attention to key points can aid with your audience’s comprehension and reinforce the retention of key ideas that help your intended narratives. If you’re accompanying the visualization with an in-person presentation, consider using props to provide an exceptionally strong emotional impact for a few key points.

8. Test and Iterate

Perfect visualizations don’t exist, but you should do your best to get close to one that best depicts your data. Test your visualizations with representative users to identify any areas for improvement. Make changes based on feedback to create more effective and user-friendly designs.

9. Tell a Coherent Story

Lastly, ordering your visualizations in a logical sequence will enhance their impact and memorability. When in doubt, start with an overview, present your key findings, and conclude with actionable recommendations.

Inject This Key Ingredient in Your Visual Storytelling

One thing that underpins most of these best practices is the healthy application of empathy. Creating data visualizations that are informative and impactful is much easier when you make them with the intent of truly informing your audience. They will almost certainly fall flat if you don’t understand how your audiences relate to the numbers that anchor the data. Combining empathy and sufficient technical know-how will, in most cases, ensure the success of your visual narratives.

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