Data by design: What user research can teach us about designing for better data storytelling

We want people who use data visualization and exploration tools to have the superhuman talent of using a lot of data to make decisions and to be able to manage that data easily. But how can we reconcile all the various streams of data and come to a shared understanding of what will have the most impact — as well as being user-friendly? That’s where empathy, humility, creativity and radical collaboration come into play.

We need to listen closely for not only how people use our services, but also for what they want to gain as individuals and as organizations. Our user-experience researchers get clarity through customer stories, and designers open our minds to possibilities by illustrating end-to-end experiences that respond to what our customers tell us. It’s important to remember that we build these products to serve and delight our users — not to build cool technology because we can.

First, let’s address empathy. When new users joined Power BI and usage increased within organizations, we started hearing that the navigation was not scaling. They found that there were too many reports, dashboards and data sets and that they had to scroll forever to find what they were looking for. We started designing solutions to address this feedback, and we came up with more than 50 options that we tested through various channels like focus groups, internal feedback groups and surveys.

But arriving at a solution is an iterative process, and this is where humility, creativity and collaboration come in. We treat each solution as a hypothesis, try out many approaches, get feedback, fail a lot and try again. When we finally landed on a solution that solved the users’ challenges, we launched it in preview mode —  and we discovered that it was too radical. We had actually gone too far in cleaning up the navigation pane, and that failed to account for the ease our customers were used to. We began to observe our customers immediately turning off the preview and going back to the old design. We knew we had to take another approach to this set of problems.

So we watched our user voice forum, gathered data and worked with our internal customer group to try out other design options. We analyzed, grouped, and prioritized feedback and tried multiple iterations of another set of design options. And within a few short, intense weeks, we introduced a navigation model that is currently in the product. We were able to arrive at a design solution that was durable and solved the real problem. The end result is a tool with a distinct personality, beautiful visuals, intuitive task flows and a human voice that makes it a natural extension of the human using it.

This kind of responsive, thorough design process includes researchers, program managers, and visual and content designers. It’s important for me as a studio chief to create an environment where people like each other and feel like they belong together in a culture that supports individuals doing their best work — learning, exploring new ideas, taking risks, getting feedback, and ultimately solving the problems. And here’s the thing: it is continuous. We will keep evolving our products as our users raise their expectations of what they can achieve with us.

What we are trying to do is understand humans and distill their needs and aspirations, and to bring that to technology like Power BI to help people reach their goals. It’s technology in service of humans, not the other way around. We are constantly asking ourselves, “How can we make this better, clearer, easier to use and even more beautiful?” Beyond creating a powerful tool,  we strive to inspire our users through clear data that has the potential to shape our world today and harness the solutions of the future.

Nafisa Bhojawala
Power BI Design Studio