Tag Archives: Design

The problem with data visualizations

You’ve probably heard the skeptical aphorism about statistics: “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” Unfortunately, I worry that we may soon hear “data visualization” tacked on to that list as the fourth and most deceiving way of communicating information. This is a problem.

A couple months ago, I was reading through some materials about a company’s financial health, and they included a dual axis chart showing the company’s Revenue and EBITDA from 2008 to 2014 (projected).  (See below.)

Dual Axes exampleLooking at the chart, it appears that the two measures increase in a near parallel fashion. The slope of their lines is pretty comparable, particularly in the later years on the chart. Problem is, this misrepresents what is actually happening. The axis on the left increases in increments of 20 while the one on the right does so in increments of 10, which means the relationship that appears between the lines is a misrepresentation.

When we chart the same data on a single axis we see that EBITDA fails to increase nearly as dramatically between 2012 and 2014 as revenue does. (See below.) If I’m evaluating the health of this company and its future prospects, that difference may be important!

Single Axis example

Adding a second axis seems like such a simple, innocuous thing, but it changes how the data might be interpreted and understood. This is just one example of the substantial impact a seemingly small design decision can have.

Why should we care about this? There are two main reasons:

  1. As consumers of more and more visual data, we need to be aware of situations like this where visualization design decisions may obscure (or at least distract from) certain critical pieces of information. Just because it’s data (data never lies!) and you can see it (my eyes would never deceive me!), doesn’t mean it is presented in an objective way.
  2. As more of us are in roles where we create data visualizations, we need to be aware that if we are careless, we run the risk of misleading our audience or imposing (hopefully unintentionally) our own viewpoint on the information we present.

Data visualization likely will be one of those things many of us try to do without any formal training, and I worry that, as a result, a lot of folks will do it badly. Am I being overly paranoid? I hope so. But this particular example doesn’t do much to allay that paranoia.

Make it pretty: Why you need to spend time making things look good

Last week I wrote a post about design and how important it is in everything we do – simply acknowledging this and being more thoughtful about design is likely to improve the quality of whatever you’re working on. In that post I downplayed the “form” piece of the design equation, and today I was reminded that that part is actually pretty critical as well.

Why does it matter if something looks good? If my doo-dad or product or whatever works well, that should be enough, right?

You would think so, and in a perfect world it would be so.

But the fact is, it is not so! And we can use this to our advantage.

In 1995 Masaaki Kurosu and Kaori Kashimura published a paper entitled “Apparent Usability vs. Inherent Usability: Experimental Analysis on the Determinants of the Apparent Usability.” In it, they reported that, basically, when people find something to be more attractive or aesthetically pleasing, they consider it to be easier to use. The paper is considered to be the seminal work on this notion, and has been followed up by other experiments and papers confirming the idea.

Why does this matter?

Well, if you’ve created something for other users – be it a dashboard, or a prospect profile, or a single data visualization – and it’s kind of ugly, your users are more likely to perceive it to be less usable. They’ll be less inclined to engage with it. And if they disengage, the product is no longer serving the purpose you intended (if any purpose at all!)

If you take the time to “make it pretty” and improve the aesthetic appeal of whatever you’re creating, you increase the perception of its usefulness and impact and, as a result, its actual usefulness and impact.


Design Matters

I used to think that design was all about artsy, visual things: fashion, graphic layouts, modern architecture, fancy furniture. You know — all the “form” stuff. It’s true that design is central to all of these, but design permeates FAR more of what we do than we all probably realize, particularly when you start thinking about the “function” piece.

Crafting an email and paying attention to how you organize it? That is design. Deciding what order your slides should go in for a presentation? Design. Trying to figure out how to most effectively lay out a prospect profile? More design. Strategizing about possible ways of engaging a prospect? Development. (And still design.)

Basically, any time you are controlling how something is constructed, that is design. Pretty sure that all of us, as human beings, are then constantly designing in one way or another, whether we know it or not.

And that last piece is wherein the most opportunity lies: most of us probably don’t realize how much we are designing things as we go along, and by simply acknowledging this and keeping it in mind, I imagine we get better and more thoughtful about everything we do.

What are some design questions that Researchers can consider to help them do their work better? Here are a few examples:

  • What details should I include in this event bio?
  • How should I use formatting and fonts to highlight the most important information in this prospect profile?
  • What questions should I ask this gift officer so they’ll tell me the most valuable things about the donor visit they just returned from?
  • What information should I focus on finding about a prospect at any particular point in the cultivation/solicitation cycle?
  • How much do I go into detail about this prospect’s stock holdings?
  • Which of these stats should I display in a chart? In an infographic? In a table? Just as plain ol’ numbers?

For more reading on myriad concepts related to design, check out Universal Principles of Design. It’s a really excellent book that is PACKED with all sorts of information about concepts in design. I can about guarantee that it will inform or inspire at least a part of what you do in your work.


Run your Prospect Research shop like the Google Search page or a Swiss Army knife

Google search, for better or worse, plays a pretty central role in the Research profession. Lots of people use it; the best researchers know how to get a lot out of it; lots of development staff mistakenly think researchers spend all their time just “googling” things; it’s loved for its power and ease of use and sometimes dissed for its search personalization. When we talk about research, it’s hard to avoid Google.

But I came across a quote this morning that suggested an even better way we can harness the power of Google: be more like it.

Google’s first female engineer, Marissa Mayer, is reportedly responsible for the site’s clean, minimalist look. She said of the site, “Google has the functionality of a really complicated Swiss Army knife, but the home page is our way of approaching it closed. It’s simple, it’s elegant, you can slip it in your pocket, but it’s got the great doodad when you need it. …  A lot of our competitors are like a Swiss Army knife open — and that can be intimidating and occasionally harmful.”

The best prospect research and management shops definitely feature the utility of a really complicated Swiss Army knife. From complex prospect identification tools like statistical modeling analysis to robust prospect management systems that track myriad concurrent activities, to rich, in-depth information development – prospect research departments can do a lot of really cool, really useful things.

But do we feature the elegance and simplicity of a closed Swiss Army knife or the Google search interface? Do we make it easy and effortless for our “users” to interact with us? I’m not convinced that we do so as much as we should, and that may be an opportunity for improvement.

A complaint I’ve heard from frontline fundraising staff (not necessarily at my institution) is that it can be too difficult to interact with a prospect management system – entering contact reports or updating prospect or proposal tracking information is too tricky. And that’s a big turnoff and clear deterrent from use.

Similarly, we can analyze and score prospects twelve ways to Tuesday, and the barrage of numbers runs the risk of making people just throw up their hands and say “Uncle! That’s too much for me. I’m just going to ignore all that.”

And if a researcher puts together a prospect profile that goes WAY beyond what is needed for the task at hand, we run the risk of crowding out the most important, most useful information. (Imagine opening ALL the gadgets on a Swiss Army knife and then trying to just use the scissors tool! Anybody need a band-aid?)

To some extent, most of us think about this sort of thing frequently, but I imagine by incorporating more thoughtful, elegant design with a focus on simplicity into everything we do, we make the fruits of our labors more accessible and desirable to use.