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How Might We Visualize Data in More Effective and Inspiring Ways?

We have many dashboards available to us today in many contexts: finance, forecasts, consumption, demographics, etc. We...



We have many dashboards available to us today in many contexts: finance, forecasts, consumption, demographics, etc. We witness the emergence of beautiful graphical representations more frequently than ever. Instead of flooding this post with examples of data visualization, I would like to put the spotlight on how we processes them, and what challenges that presents.

A couple of years ago, we were tasked at IDEO to design dashboard visualizations for Ford's next generation hybrid vehicle, the Ford Fusion. Hybrid cars are efficient only if the driver maximizes the car's potential; in other words, if the driver learns to make sense of the complex mechanics of two motors and regenerative braking. If the dashboard is the interface between the driver and the car, how might it coach drivers to make sense of this complexity and to adopt efficient driving habits? That is the obvious question, but it's incomplete. The missing part is, how do we design without interfering with driving and safety?

This is the key question we need to address when we put people at the center of evaluation (as Jocelyn Wyatt puts it). In this context, it means recognizing that people are preoccupied with more important tasks than spending long amounts of time in front of dashboards and data visualizations. This is true in any setting, and in our case it was driving. The role of visualization should not be to demand full attention, but to support the priority task and improve it through feedback loops. The challenge is not just to display how you are doing right now, but also to figure out how you could do better. So, what does this mean for the visualization itself?

Every form of visualization should tell a story. Unfortunately there is limited attention and time to process all the stories. So the gist of the story, or its immediate impact, should be visible right away. The term I like to use for this principle is "glanceability." What does a visualization tell us before we take time to analyze it? I invite you to look at the following chart and image for 10 seconds each and compare. What did you see? What did you feel?

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