In today’s world, many companies rely on their successful decision-making by using data. Turning data insights into action is key, but in order to make changes from those insights, it’s important to visually format that data. By visually formatting data, users can perceive patterns and outliers easier that may not have been discovered before. The goal of data visualization is impact, not numbers. It is a unique combination of art and science that encourages us to seek graphical representation of data. If you are unsure on where to start with your visualizations, or need some tips on how to improve the ones you have, here are five ways to take data visualizations from good to great.
 

5 Ways to Go from Good to Great Data Visualizations

 

1. Utilize Charts

Don’t get stuck with chart wizards or just prefabricated visuals. For great data visualizations, it’s not a one-size-fits-all approach. Ask yourself what different kinds of visualizations will tell you the most truthful story about your data and will best answer the questions at hand. Many beautiful charts can actually hide or create the illusion of a different story, not the one you are eagerly trying to tell. However, boring or plain visuals can make your audience lose interest and disengage. So you have to find that perfect balance between beauty and utility. The Data Visualization Catalog is a great tool that provides background information on numerous charts so you can find the best one to support your data. Each chart description has information on the anatomy, functionally, and typical usage of the chart, along with a list of tools needed to create it. Below is just a sample of charts you can get more information on.
Charts for Data Visualization Best Practices
 

2. Pay Attention to Color

Color is one of the most powerful aesthetic features because it’s an attention-grabber. It’s the first thing you notice, and it can immediately highlight specific insights or identify outliers. The data, not brand colors, should drive the use of color to make a point. I’m sure you’ve had clients that were fixed on the idea to have their brand colors used in their visualizations. But let’s think about this. If your client uses red in their logo, and you add red in their visualizations, it can be overwhelming. You may use it once or twice when combining gray tones or other combinations to make specific points stand out, but having an entirely red visualization can distract from the insights you are trying to show your audience. A great tip is to not use similar colors (like the multi-set bar chart example below from the Data Visualization Catalog) or too many colors. Also, I wouldn’t recommend reusing colors for different dimensions or measures on the same dashboard.
 
Multiset bar chart with poor color choices
 

3. Size Matters

Bigger is better, right? When it comes to visualizations in your dashboards, this isn’t always the case. The bigger the object, the bolder it looks. Bold shapes and colors might work well with bar charts and area charts, but they may also look gaudy when used in a different chart, like a treemap. Another example is if the difference between data points is very minimal or very great. Size in this case may not always be a good encoding tool and make visuals hard to read. My personal preference is to make the axes a fairly small font to prevent it from standing out too much. Axes aren’t the biggest attribute you want your audience to focus on. You want them to focus on the trend of the data. If you use a map chart, the size of the mark should be based on the range of values. For example, a large circle on a world map could represent a populous city, like this bubble chart from the Data Visualization Catalog. Use size to draw emphasis to your key message, not obscure it.
 
Bubble map to represent size
 

4. Don’t Forget About Text

When you first think about visuals, sometimes the idea of text can get a back seat. But your text is just as important as any other element. Similar to other cases I’ve mentioned, do not emphasize everything. Your visuals will be crowded and your audience will have a hard time focusing on the message your are trying to deliver. For titles, try to keep them short, but also powerful. Convey the point, message, or story in the fewest words possible. Basically, don’t have a title as long as Queen Daenerys in Game of Thrones.
Game of Thrones coffee cup with long title
 
This same principle applies to labels. Try to find the sweet spot. Too many mark labels can be very distracting. Here’s an example of a layout with supporting text that is just a little overwhelming.
 
Dashboard that needs improvement
 
Instead, try focusing on labeling the most recent mark or using a minimum or maximum, which will prevent you from having crowded visualizations, improve readability, and add that extra bit of clarity for your audience. Here’s a much cleaner version of the same information.
 
Good example of a dashboard with text and labels
 

5. Focus on Layout

Your dashboard’s purpose is to help guide the reader’s eye through more than one visualization, tell the story of each insight, and reveal how they’re connected. The more you employ better dashboard design, your audience will discover what’s happening, why it’s happening, and what’s the most important thing they need to know.
 
Take into account how you’re guiding the eyes of your audience across the dashboard. Are you showing them where to look next? Focus on guiding the user. Try swapping a filter title with directions about how to navigate. Another helpful tip is to use the rule of three. You don’t want to make a lot of important information compete for attention. Most of the time, more than three visualizations can be one too many. If you need additional space when preparing a presentation, connect the different visualizations with story points.  Focus on telling a narrative of your data with visuals that build on each other. Highlight specific insights, provide additional context, and keep it all in one seamless presentation.
 
If you need a practical starting point, a flow chart like the one below can map out the process a user goes through when viewing a dashboard. By examining this process, you can gain valuable input on how to build a layout that better tells the story of your data.
 
Flow map to determine best practices for your dashboard layout

Summary

Great visualizations will not only help you understand more about your data, but they’ll also offer faster, more meaningful answers to questions your clients may have, and even inspire others to ask and answer new questions. Remember, you need impactful visualizations in order to keep your audience engaged. Don’t sell yourself short with poor visualizations. Instead, constantly try to improve your work. I hope these tips can help make some improvements to your own visualizations. If you’re itching for an even more deep dive, contact us at Cognetik. Our team of experts are more than willing to help you tell the story of your data.

About the author

Anamaria Craita

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