Tag Archives: Visualization

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.


Things you think you can do without training

Something that perplexes me about the professional world is that there are a number of things we seem to assume we can do just fine, in spite of the fact that we may have no training whatsoever. They include (but certainly are not limited to!) the following:

  • Data visualization
  • Managing people
    • Hiring
    • Giving feedback
    • Assigning work
    • Doing annual reviews
  • Presenting
    • Creating visual aids for presentations (e.g., powerpoint decks)
    • Actually giving presentations
  • Writing (emails and otherwise)

These are important things that we might do every single day! (Especially those of us who are managers) So you’d think there would be a lot more emphasis on training and focused improvement on them.

Think about it: when someone becomes a prospect researcher, they get training on a range of skills: using special resources; searching the web effectively; analyzing SEC documents; finding and using assessors’ databases; etc.

But when was the last time anyone talked about taking time to get training on data visualization? Or doing annual reviews? Or giving presentations? These are the sorts of things that many people just dive in and do, in many cases without taking a lot of time to think seriously about how we do them well (much less getting focused training).

I think this needs to change. As professionals, we have an obligation to continue to hone our skills in all areas. And if this general obligation-to-get-better notion doesn’t resonate with you, think about it this way: if you’re the gal (or guy) who is just a little bit better than everyone else at hiring people; at giving feedback; at creating visual aids for presentations; at writing… then you are going to start to stand out and get noticed, in your office, at your organization, and within your field.

The “Next Big Thing”

I’ve been involved with programming for a few different professional associations, and there seems to be a constant hunger for “the next big thing.” I’ve even seen other programming committee members say to potential speakers “we’d like you to do a talk on what you think the next big thing is going to be in prospect research and/or development.”

Over the last decade or so, I’ve noticed a few key areas that, in the prospect research world, have taken their turn as “the next big thing:” prospect management and tracking; data mining and modeling (or just analytics); and probably most recently, social media.

People are getting acclimated to social media and its newness is wearing off a little bit, which makes me wonder again, what will be the next big thing in prospect research circles?

I know what it is. Well, I know what I think it should be: Data Visualization.

“Why?” you may be thinking. “Why is this something that we should spend any time on? Why do you think I need someone to tell me how to do this?”

Data visualization is just one of many things that we do in the workplace that people rarely get appropriate training on. (Other such things include giving presentations, hiring, giving feedback, assigning work, writing effectively, etc; [There’s another post in there somewhere…]) We’re just thrown into situations where we’re expected to do these things, and we don’t always get good training on it (if any), so most of us just make it up as we go along and generally get mediocre results. Which tends not to be a problem, because everyone is probably getting mediocre results, so if I do too, I fit right in and nobody knows there’s a problem!

But we should do data visualization better. There are a number of reasons for this. Not least of which is that we should just strive to do everything better on principal! But also because data visualization can be a powerful tool in all of the work that we do.

That data. ALL that data…

As everyone is well aware, data is becoming more and more a part of our lives and the work that we do. You’ll notice that two of the three past “next big things” I listed above are directly involved with data: prospect management systems and analytics. We have more and more access to data and we are finding more and more powerful ways of working with and capitalizing on that data.

But as we gather more information, the signal-to-noise ratio changes dramatically, and it becomes more difficult to determine what is relevant. Patterns are hard to find. The meaningful information gets buried. And our ability to actually take advantage of the data diminishes.

This is where data visualization comes in: it can help us more effectively explore, interpret, and understand our information.

One of our strongest, most utilized senses is that of visual perception. Most of us experience the world through our eyes, and our brains are wired to process visual cues in a tremendously effective way. (Don’t believe me? Check out this site on perception in visualization. There are some powerful examples and tools that illustrate how amazing our preattentive processing is.)

We can take advantage of this hard-wiring by looking at our data (literally) from different perspectives. In doing so, patterns become evident, data of note comes to our attention, and we will understand where further exploration is warranted to identify actionable information.

Let me tell you what I really want to tell you…

In my mind, using visualization to explore our data is reason enough to embrace it and learn as much as we can about how to do so effectively. Case closed!

But let me put on my infomercial pitch-man hat and say “but wait, there’s more!”

Visualizations can be incredibly effective at communicating information. If I’ve got a table of data, I have a few options for communicating that to you:

  • I can just show you the table. You’ll have to comb through it to see where the high and low points are, what trends are occurring (if it’s longitudinal), etc.
  • I can explain it with words. I will have to comb through it to see where the high and low points are, what trends are occurring, etc., and THEN I’m going to have to put that into words and either write it down or just tell you.
  • I can put it into a chart. (Line graph, bar chart… doesn’t matter) The chart will show visually where the high and low points are, what trends are occurring, etc. Even if I don’t put any numbers on the chart, you can compare one datapoint to another and see them relative to one another.

By using a chart, I save myself and the other person lots of mental energy and drastically reduce the chance that there will be a misunderstanding or that the main message won’t be heard.

One of the benefits of this improved communication is the fact that we can more effectively make a particular point. If I want to highlight to our staff the fact that we have steadily increased the number of visit-ready prospects in our pipeline over the past five years, I can certainly just say that. But if I gather the data that supports that statement and put it into a visual format, it will be much more impactful. (See example below.) It also begins to quickly shed light on a number of other questions of the data:

  • How many prospects do we have now, compared to five years ago? (about four times as many, based on a quick look at the first and last columns)
  • When did we have the greatest increase in prospects? (2007-2008 and 2008-2009 look like they experienced the largest jumps)
  • How has the rate of our prospect identification fared recently? (it slowed about two years ago, but looks like it might be picking up)

As our organizations move more and more toward embracing data, it becomes ever more important that we are able to present that data in a way that is understandable and powerful. In my opinion, the only way to do this is with visualizations, and the only way to become more effective at utilizing visualization techniques is to make data visualization “the next big thing” in our professional development.

Only recently have I become seriously interested in data visualization, so I’m just scratching the surface of what is possible. But in spite of my newness to the field of study, I’m tremendously excited about the possibilities. My current books-to-read list includes a number of titles by Edward Tufte and Steven Few, and I’m excited to get deeper into these. What are your favorites?