Unexpected Data Requires Unexpected Visualization

 One key challenge for companies that have begun to collect large amounts of data is analyzing and visualizing it in a way that produces insights. Data is worthless if you can’t use it to improve your business, but the disruptive insights that data produces could remain hidden if you aren’t visualizing it in an effective way.

When creating data visualizations, you want to do something unexpected with the imagery to quickly communicate what’s important about the data. Here are five quick guidelines to help you make the most of your data insights—and communicate them to others.

1. Emphasize the unknown

Wired’s “Innovation Insights” writer, Willem DeGeer, notes that “traditional tools tend to visualize what we already know about the data, rather than the unknown. Helping people find outliers, expose hidden trends or clusters, and dive deep into fast-changing data sets is where visualization provides real value.” In other words, your data isn’t supposed to confirm biases but to provide ROI by exploring anomalies you couldn’t previously see–and that you can act on immediately.

2. Hack the visualizations humans already understand

When building visualizations, emphasize these differences to make your data more accessible. For example, infographics that use relative sizes of objects, various color saturations and brightness, and placement of objects in 2D space all effectively tap into the lizard parts of our brain and take the strain off the cerebral cortex.People are hard-wired to recognize differences in imagery, largely left over from our tens of thousands of years of hunting, gathering, and avoiding becoming prey. This phenomenon is called “pre-attentive processing,” the visual acuity we can access within milliseconds without the need for focused attention.

Helping people find outliers and expose hidden trends is where visualization provides real value.

3. Use left- and right-brain visualizations for maximum effect

The brain’s left hemisphere processes symbols and logical patterns, while the right hemisphere emphasizes intuition and pure visualization. Artists and performers subconsciously tap into both, and visualizations that engage both sides of the brain may help an audience better understand the insights within a data set. DeGeer discusses “treemaps” as a visualization technique that helps people quickly see patterns, clusters, and outliers in very large data sets while engaging both of the brain’s hemispheres.

4. Make it interactive

Relationships between data are far easier to understand when the reader can interact with the data in some way and quickly play around and see how changes in those relationships can affect the overall visualization. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to build an HTML5 site every time you present a new set of data. For example, this infographic from the print version of The Economist still manages to be interactive by illustrating through a clever call-to-action the chances of becoming a victim of random violence in several countries around the world.

5. Keep your data simple

With the emphasis on making data unique, there’s a temptation to make things unnecessarily complex. Don’t. Keep your use of colors low-key and meaningful. Keep pie charts simple and easy to understand. Remove visual information that doesn’t emphasize the insights in the data. And if there are unexpected results, dive deeper into them to fully understand what’s happening. Is it an insight, an opportunity, or simply bad data?

Be unexpected

Taking your first steps into data visualization is challenging, especially if you’re not used to the idea of building unexpected visualizations. Keep in mind that your goal is to uncover and tap into those insights that provide business opportunities, then to understand how your intended audience will consume that information. Remember: just because it makes sense to you doesn’t always mean it makes sense to someone else. And, of course, stay unexpected, make it memorable, and put your data to work for you and your company.