How to Create More Valuable Charts for Better Business Decisions

May 23, 2016
9 Min Read
Data Visualization - How to Make Charts More Memorable and Persuasive

Data Visualization - How to Make Charts More Memorable and PersuasiveIn today’s world, we often make decisions based on data, whether it’s how much to exercise or what product to buy.

But what you may not realize is how many decisions are made based on the charts used to visualize that data -- and unfortunately some of those charts aren’t very good.

The result is that bad charts can lead to bad decisions as information isn’t conveyed correctly or leads to erroneous conclusions, says Scott Berinato, author of “Good Charts.

“Or, bad charts can lead to no decision because people become so paralyzed by the data in front of them,” he says.

Data visualization – or “dataviz” – is becoming more important as businesses seek ways to use data to grow their market share or be more competitive worldwide, Berinato explains.

“In a world governed by data, in knowledge economies where ideas are currency, visualization has emerged as our shared language,” he says.

Berinato says that charts need to be given more attention because businesses that present bad charts can lose their competitive edge to those who do a better job at designing charts. At the same time, individuals who design bad charts can lose out on promotions or important projects and customers may lose interest in a product or company that offers bad charts, he explains.

While many workers may believe they design perfectly fine charts, they may be deluding themselves. “Increasingly, when an executive sees a line chart that’s been spit out of Excel and pasted into a presentation, she wonders why it doesn’t look more like the simple, beautiful charts of her fitness-tracker app,” Berinato says.

One of the problems is that too many workers believe that the tools they use are the key to producing good charts, he says. Instead, they need to set aside the tool and spend more time thinking about the message they want to convey.  “In essence, when trying to convey an idea, there aren’t any tools yet that can intuit our context," he says.

Much of Berinato’s book emphasizes that you need to think more about what you’re trying to accomplish and use “design thinking” to craft a narrative and a visual that will help you convey your message.

“It’s far more important to know who will see this, what do they want, what do they need, what idea do I want to convey, what could I show, what should I show and then how will I show it,” he says.

In the book, Berinato outlines some ways to improve charts:

  • Understand that chart readers jump around. They may read halfway across an axis and then move onto something else or skip parts of the chart. They may read top to bottom, or vice versa. Their eyes are drawn to stimulation, and the reading order may depend on the individual’s expertise in the specific subject. The chart readers may not look at the title first, but will use it as a clue to help find the meaning in what they’re viewing. The lesson: Charts need to be written spatially, from the visual outward.
  • We are drawn to the unique. Unusual colors, steep curves, cluster or outliers will draw the eyes first. It’s key that whatever stands out should match or support the idea being conveyed. “If it doesn’t, it will distract from and fight for attention with the main idea,” he says.
  • We see only a few things at once. “The more data that’s plotted in a chart, the more singular the idea it conveys,” he says. “A visual that contains tens, hundreds or thousands or plotted data points shows us a forest instead of individual trees.”
  • We seek meaning and make connections. We try to make sense immediately of what we see that stands out, and we process visual information thousands of times more efficiently than we do text, he explains. Also, we may prioritize a color (orange) over another (blue) even if it’s meaningless. That means that if “visual elements are presented together, they should be related in a meaningful way; otherwise, viewers will construct false narratives about the relationship between them,” he says.
  • We rely on conventions and metaphors. We look at the color red as negative, while we consider green to be positive. We also think it’s easier to go south (down) than it is to go up (north). “In general, you should embrace, not fight, deeply ingrained conventions and metaphors when creating visuals. Flouting them creates confusion, uncertainty and frustration, which will weaken or eliminate a chart’s effectiveness,” he says.

Berinato says that the growing availability of data has led to more people believing they need to cram it all into a chart, without thinking about ways to create context and keep the chart as simple as possible.

“People think if they create busy charts then they are telling others, ‘Look how busy I am!’” he says. “Simplicity takes courage.”

He suggests that the key to making a good chart begins with spending about an hour with a pen and paper, thinking about how to create context and what you want the data to convey. By writing down some ideas and talking to a friend or colleague about what you’re trying to say or show, you can then move on to matching key words, phrases or statements to chart types. Once that is done, then quickly sketch out several visual approaches, honing it into a more accurate and detailed sketch using digital prototyping tools.

Also, remember that it’s not enough that your chart is accurate – it must also reveal important truths, such as the need for more resources. Focus more on convincing the audience instead of just showing them, he says.

Finally, Berinato stresses you cannot be reckless with your persuasion techniques, because you don’t want to be deceptive. Ask yourself if the chart, for example, makes it easier to see the idea -- or is actually changing it?

Want to chart your way to richer data insights within your team or company? Check out how QuickBase can help.

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