Data Visualization Lesson 2: Think of Grandma

As the old composition adage goes, if it doesn’t make sense to the reader, it’s usually the author’s fault.

The same applies to data visualization. Much like written or spoken communication, visuals invite the audience to extrapolate information, draw inferences, and make judgments or decisions. If a picture is indeed worth a thousand words, it is absolutely crucial that visual displays accurately convey information in ways the target audience can intuitively understand.

We’ve all seen them (or perhaps even delivered them!) – presentations or write-ups where the research is substantively interesting but the data visualizations aren’t quite right. At best, viewers squint their eyes, tilt their heads, and frown. At worst, they stop paying attention.

So how do we do right by our data, highlight the key findings from research, and convey them visually in a crisp, compelling manner?

I propose four guiding principles:

  1. Put it in words. Visual displays of data often try to do too much at once. What is the one insight you want to convey or attribute you want to show? By first explaining to yourself what you wish to show in the visual, you’ve made it much more likely that that’s what will actually come out.
  2. Think of Grandma. Even if you are presenting research to a technical audience, your grandmother should be able to explain – at a general level – what’s going on in the visuals. The best visual displays of data are accessible: they excite and inspire us to want to know more, regardless of our initial level of interest or expertise.
  3. Avoid MEGO. Create visuals that include an unnecessary number of variables, too many trendlines, advanced statistical formulas, or complex mathematical proofs, and you’ll induce a case of MEGO – My Eyes Glaze Over. Maintain viewers’ attention and engagement by keeping it simple.
  4. Use the appropriate visual. Graphs, charts, tables, and figures are much like tools in a toolbox – they’re better suited for some tasks than for others.

In my next post, we’ll explore how to choose the right visual for the right purpose.

Data Visualization Lesson 1: Examine the Y-Axis
Data Visualization Lesson 3: Abela’s Rubric
Data Visualization Lesson 4: The Best Pies are Desserts
Data Visualization Lesson 5: Ninth Grade Algebra Wasn’t Worthless After All
Data Visualization Lesson 6: The Ultimate List of Dos and Don’ts

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Related posts:

  1. Data Visualization Lesson 1: Examine the Y-Axis
  2. 10 Places for Market Researchers to Learn about Data Visualization
  3. A Hunger for Data Visualization
  4. Meet the Data Triplets: Data, Metadata and Paradata
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About Dana Griffin

Dr. Dana Griffin is a consumer insights and decision-making expert based in Seattle. An award-winning researcher and data educator, she earned her Ph.D. in political science from the University of Minnesota with concentrations in research methodology and psychology. With extensive experience in both qualitative and quantitative methods, Dana served as the Director of Survey Research at one of the largest newspapers in Minnesota. Prior to joining the private sector as a research and analytics specialist, she was a faculty member at Furman University and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.