When to Visualise data ?
Before deciding to visualise data it is important to keep the end user goals in mind. Some thoughts before you think of Data visualisation.
Shyamal Bhat

The ever-increasing access to big data (or information of any and all kinds) has launched a massive, sweeping wave of constantly evolving technologies across industries. However, data is useless — and can in fact become a liability — if it doesn’t serve the purpose it’s meant for. Because at the end of the day, data is meant to arm the right people with the right insights, delivered in the most effective manner, to affect positive change.

Thus, when creating user interfaces and experiences, data presentation isn’t just about cleaning and structuring it for audience interpretation. It’s about simplifying data to educate or even persuade your audience with the specific goal of triggering an action. In other words, data presentation on interfaces must be goal-driven. This is why mapping out user personas and user journeys, and understanding what users are supposed to accomplish post data consumption, are critical to designing effective user interfaces.

Broadly speaking, data can be represented in two ways — via visuals (using charts and graphs that depict numerical values) and via numbers (using precise numerical values).

Data visualization is the visual depiction of data. It can be done in a variety of formats ranging from single graphs and charts to comprehensive dashboards displaying a multitude of visuals. Data visualizations are extensively used to present time series market and financial data.

Effective visualizations greatly reduce the time that your audience takes to process information and derive actionable insights. Thus, graphical representation of data significantly reduces the cognitive load on your audience by engaging them and helping them derive deeper meaning from the data. Visual data also aids increased comprehension, retention, and faster decision-making. For instance, if you look at bar charts or dispersion diagrams, you can immediately identify trend formations, correlations, and behavior patterns as they emerge over time. Data visualizations are also useful for quick comparisons of features, prices, or measurements. Finally, graphical representations of data are highly useful when you’re looking to cover a large number of data points that have to be presented simultaneously, which the audience can then quickly skim through to focus on precise data points of interest.

Numerical data, on the other hand, is useful when you expect your audience to take precisely informed decisions, or when you want them to consume individual data points at a time. Working with numbers increases the cognitive load on the user and therefore increases decision time. However, it is required when users look for specific measurements, or data anomalies. Examples here include asset performance management software and bank statements. Numerical values are also used in interfaces when even a slight degree of change can have a relatively large impact on outcomes.

Numerical data presentations are extremely important when talking about revenue/ profit figures (whether past, current, or future estimates), productivity readings, and also when talking about healthcare-related information such as calorie intake allowances, vitals readings, and specific measurements. As mentioned earlier, each of these can also be presented visually when plotted/ measured over a period of time. There’s of course also the scope for blended data presentations, wherein data visualizations also include numerical values (as labels) to help users scan and then focus on particular items of interest.

It pays to remember that creating an unforgettable user experience is all about putting the user at the center of everything you do. No matter how well you design an interface, you risk losing your audience if they’re unable to find the data they’re looking for — if it’s lost in your data presentation and can’t be leveraged for informed action by the relevant users. Even if your interface has been crafted with the utmost creativity and showcases perfectly optimized content, you’ve accomplished nothing if your audience can’t interact meaningfully with it to gain necessary information.

The best technique is therefore to work backward — to determine the desired user outcomes/ actions before determining the mode of data presentation. Helpful questions include:

How can you present the data effectively enough to ensure that your audience can immediately derive the necessary key insights?
What would you like your audience to be able to do once they’ve derived the insights?
Do they have all the necessary data to inform their decisions/ actions?

Let’s face it — in today’s uber digital, mobile-first age, a well-designed, meaningful user interface can either greatly improve or impede user experience. So rule of thumb — you can never go wrong if you adopt a user and goal-driven approach to presenting data.

As a team we have been engaged is several exciting Data Visualisation projects on SaaS products. Happy to share our learnings should you be interested!

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