A Picture Explains a Lot of Data

If you ask someone who uses analytics on a day-to-day basis about hot industry trends, you're likely to hear a recurring phrase.

Data visualizations.

You may have read about it here. Editor in chief Beth Schultz recently noted that the International Institute for Analytics predicts insight will get more visual this year. (See Data Visualizations Beg Your Attention.)

A few years ago, Michael Friendly, a professor of psychology at York University in Ontario, defined data visualization as "the science of visual representation of data, defined as information which has been abstracted in some schematic form, including attributes or variables for the units of information."

To get a good overview of the Best and Worst of Statistical Graphics, take a look at Friendly's Gallery of Data Visualization. The simple fact is that people like pictures -- including visualization of trends, patterns, and data relationships. It can make even the most complex data easier to understand.

This New York Times image from May 3, 2008, shows year-over-year changes in prices of various components of an average consumer's spending. It's one of the images in Friendly's Gallery of Data Visualization.
This New York Times image from May 3, 2008, shows year-over-year changes in prices of various components of an average consumer's spending. It's one of the images in Friendly's Gallery of Data Visualization.

As Boris Evelson, vice president and principal analyst at Forrester, explained in a July blog post, "More often than not, traditional reports using tabs, rows, and columns do not paint the whole picture or, even worse, lead an analyst to a wrong conclusion. "

Evelson thinks companies should visualize data because:

  • Simply seeing numbers on a grid often does not convey the whole story -- and in the worst case, it can even lead to a wrong conclusion.

  • Fitting all of the necessary data points onto a single screen, even with the smallest reasonably readable font, single-line spacing, and no grid, is impossible.

  • Showing deep and broad data sets on a single screen can't be done effectively.

According to Aberdeen Group analyst Michael Lock, business users process information more effectively and make faster and better decisions when they can visualize it. "Best-in-class companies recognize that driving adoption and engagement is predicated on delivering solutions that are easy to use, visually intuitive, and relevant to specific job roles."

But Suzie Ivelich, managing director at the San Francisco office of Landor Associates, a strategic brand consulting and design firm, noted that not all data visualizations are equal. "A great data visualization is one that allows customers to really look at the data and engage with it in a way that they find interesting," she stated, adding:

The brands that will stand out are the ones that really get this -- the ones that don't build the data visualizations for themselves or just look pretty, but who focus on what's important in terms of the customer's needs, the type of conversation customers want to have, and what they want to get out of it in the end.

Do you agree? How can companies use data visualization to speak to their clients and customers? Any great examples?

Noreen Seebacher,

Noreen Seebacher, the Community Editor of Investor Uprising, has been a business journalist for more than 20 years. A New York City based writer and editor, she has worked for numerous print and online publications. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, the New York Post, New York’s Daily News, The Detroit News, and the Pittsburgh Press. She co-edited five newsletters for Real Estate Media’s GlobeSt.com and served as the site's technology editor.

She also championed the commercial real estate beat at The Journal News, a Gannett publication in suburban New York City, and co-founded a Website focused on personal finance. Through her own company, Stasa Media, Noreen has produced reports, whitepapers, and internal publications for a number of Fortune 500 clients. When she's not writing, editing, or Web surfing, she relaxes in an 1875 Victorian with her husband and their five kids, four formerly homeless cats, and a dog.

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Re: Visualization
  • 1/16/2013 4:39:21 PM

@Data Doctor   lol.    That is my kind of piechart !  : )

Re: Importance of numbers as well
  • 1/16/2013 4:38:10 PM

@ WaqasAltaf    I agree.  I like the use of data viualization but users should have to the ability to drill down to real numbers, especially for those who need or like them.

Importance of numbers as well
  • 1/12/2013 3:46:40 AM

Data visualization may be a good technique to clarify the picture of the situation in a executive meeting however when measuring year-to-year or quarter-to-quarter results, numbers become a necessity for future planning. My point is that to present the statistical situation in layman terms for viewers who might find it a hassle to review all the numbers in a MIS report or excel file, data visualization is good but for the users who plan to perform thorough analysis for decision making, planning & budgeting or forecasting purposes, the numbers are the only thing they are concerned about. Nevertheless, the benefits of data visualization stand good in their own place.

Re: Visualization
  • 1/12/2013 2:56:46 AM

@ magneticnorth

Lolz. Nice one.

Jokes apart, companies should learn that how a data visualization product can be both interesting for users/customers and can also give answers to their questions in as simplistic manner as this bowl of pie does.

Re: Visualization
  • 1/10/2013 11:00:14 PM
1 saves

This is the most accurate pie chart ever:

Re: Visualization
  • 1/10/2013 12:17:08 PM

@Ariella, that is a great way to sum it up, I am going to have to use that in the future!

Re: Visualization
  • 1/10/2013 12:14:15 PM

@Noreen I've noticed that some of the reviewers on the Banana site complain about  the inconsistency of sizing. They don't know which size to order because some of the clothes are cut much bigger than they find elsewhere. They generally attribute it to "vanity sizing," making the size 8 feel good about fitting into a size 2. 

Re: Visualization
  • 1/10/2013 12:11:39 PM

@bulk great minds think alike! They also know that they are not likely to think alike with those assigned to their groups!

Re: Visualization
  • 1/10/2013 11:54:26 AM

@Ariella, That is also my favorite pie chart of all time, and one that I find to be spot on... :-)

Re: Visualization
  • 1/10/2013 11:53:17 AM

Like this too:

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