Visualizing data can seem as simple as creating a pie chart in Excel and customizing the colors and fonts to look pretty.
Unfortunately, this common method is one of the biggest visualization mistakes you can make.
When done correctly, data visualization can help you better understand complex information and quickly uncover new business insights. When done wrong, infographics, charts, and dashboards are solely created to make a presentation look more attractive, without an accompanying story nor facilitating a new level of understanding.
The Biggest Visualization Mistakes
Businesses are always looking for new ways to visualize people, content, and processes. We all want to have a deeper understanding of who is working with whom, and on what, across the entire organization. This level of work visualization is growing in popularity, but many companies are doing it all wrong.
To avoid visualization pitfalls and help you identify business trends and patterns, we asked five visualization experts to share the biggest mistake businesses can make.
Here’s what they had to say:
1. "The biggest mistake I believe businesses are making with their data visualisation work is applying the wrong lens to judge ‘quality.'"
“Too many examples you see from within the 4 walls of organisations is typical of work that has been led by a desire to make things look ‘cool’ or ‘fancy’. Alternatively you see evidence of an assumption that good visualisation means showing strong technical capability, vomiting as many embellishments (3D, gradients, every colour in the rainbow) over a chart as possible. This is an understandable consequence of the simple lack of awareness of what is right or wrong - many don’t even know what they’re doing (charting/graphics) has a discipline behind it in the shape of data visualisation.
“If your visualisation work is not driven by a desire to facilitate understanding, you are doing it wrong. If you’re just following your tastes or gut instincts, you are doing it wrong.”
Andy Kirk, UK-based freelance data visualization specialist, author, editor of visualisingdata.com, speaker, and researcher
2. “I believe that companies need to train their analysts in good visualization practices a bit better."
“A visualization is not decoration or an illustration you include on a page of a report to make it look lighter. A visualization is a tool for understanding. Therefore, it needs to be designed carefully, following certain perceptual and cognitive principles that can be learned.
“Finally, companies tend to stick too much to the design defaults their tools offer. Most of the time you see a chart done in Excel, you can tell it was done in Excel, just because most people don't go beyond the style Excel imposes on you. The same could be said of any other visualization or business analytics tool. That shouldn't happen. You should force the tool to do what you need it to, not the other way around.”
Alberto Cairo, author of “The Functional Art: An Introduction to Information Graphics and Visualization.”
3. “The biggest mistake I see is simply showing data, without any accompanying narrative or story."
“Data on its own isn't so useful. It is when data is turned into information and framed in a story that it can have impact, helping us to understand something better, make smarter decisions, and drive action. Never simply show data; rather, take the time and energy to make data the pivotal point in an overarching story.”
Cole Nussbaumer, helping organizations and individuals be more effective data storytellers through workshops and consulting services.
4. "Many visualization tools offer no guidance for effective best practices."
“Many visualization tools today focus primarily on constructing charts, often with no guidance for effective best practices and little if any support for the larger process of analysis. Better tools might focus more to directly facilitate discovery, help us consider questions we might have overlooked, and spur us to exercise appropriate skepticism with regards to both data quality and apparent patterns."
Jeffrey Heer, professor of computer science at University of Washington and co-founder of Trifacta, a leading data wrangling solution.
5. "The #1 thing businesses are doing wrong is really related to three things."
“The first mistake is creating a big/long project needlessly. It's best to find a project that you can finish in two days to two weeks. You'll learn from the project, gain confidence and build demand for more visualizations from your information consumers. Second, reinventing old-style BI reporting in Tableau. This is the WORST way to use Tableau.
“And lastly, not getting training for the most experienced technical resources. If your database/BI team members understand how a tool works, they will know how to design database tables that will support what you want to accomplish with the tool.”
Dan Murray, author of “Tableau Your Data!”
How to Avoid These Visualization Mistakes
Creating powerful, effective visualizations first starts with a shift in our mindset. These visuals should not be made primarily to beautify a report or presentation. This does not mean design doesn’t matter -- quite the contrary. However, the design should focus on driving understanding, not simply looking “cool.”
To Cole Nussbaumer’s point, ensure your visual is part of an overarching story. The data should not stand alone and instead should help you make smarter decisions.
Don’t waste time and resources making a visualization that doesn’t drive action. Spend some extra time learning the tool and understanding the goal of the visual, and you can focus on uncovering new insight that can improve your business.