The Impact of Data Visualization

The Impact of Data Visualization

Note: When discussing data visualization, the term “information graphics” (or infographics) is often used interchangeably. Although technically there is a distinction, for purposes of this article we’ll follow the norm and use both terms to reference the practice of translating quantitative information into images.

The graphical presentation of statistical information, measurements, relationships or flows that might otherwise be confusing or inaccessible, data visualization can be an extremely effective technique to deepen reader engagement and comprehension of the subject matter.

In the raw, data are often meaningless or at least their meanings are not easily or universally concluded. When faced with a group of numbers or set of measurements, many people’s eyes will literally gloss over the information as they are unable or unwilling to spend the time required to process it. Our modern living contributes to an ever-growing pool of “big data,” and our ability to collect this type of information becomes easier and easier.  As such, the filtering, visualization and interpretation of data become increasingly important and necessary.

When it's great

As we consider what to do with data, we should first understand why their presentation in graphical format is so powerful.

Increases comprehension and recall

People can process images more quickly than words. In fact, we can get the sense of a visual scene in less than 1/10 of a second![1] Also, pictures are often universally understood when words may not be. As data are transformed into imagery, the readability and cognition of the content greatly improve.

Infographics also make data tangible and consequently their recall is much higher than words alone. While people can only seem to remember just 10% of what they hear and only 20% of what they read, retention jumps up to 80% when they see and do.[2] In the case of interactive infographics, this is particularly true.

Allows for information density and perspective

With infographics you can pack a lot of information into a small space. Colors, shape, movement, contrast in scale and weight, and even sound can be used to denote different aspects of the data allowing for multiple layers of understanding and points of access. The ability to go deep with information while maintaining a minimal physical footprint is also advantageous for small screens, social media platforms and short bursts of attention.

A great example of the kind of perspective an infographic can provide is one from The Washington Post entitled “The Depth of the Problem” which describes the incredible challenge of trying to locate the black box of Malaysia Airlines Flight #370 in the deep waters of the Indian Ocean. The comparisons between iconic structures and marine life at various ocean depths to the supposed location of the black box and extreme height of the infographic itself dramatically convey the problem in a way that a mere comparison list of those same figures could never do. (Ironically this graphic is not an example of information in a small footprint because it's explicitly making the opposite point.) The effect is provocative and descriptive… and emotional.

Enables qualitative analysis of quantitative information

Color, shape, sounds and size can make evident relationships within data or qualitative aspects that might not otherwise be apparent. When data points are represented as images or components of an entire scene, readers are able to see the big picture and understand how the information fits within a larger context. This will often help readers draw corollaries between what they already know and the information being presented which in turn can drive a deeper understanding and meaning of the content.

An excellent example of this is Samuel Merritt University's Data Cartographer. Developed by Valerie Landau and Penny Bradford, Data Cartographer transformed reams of mind-numbing Excel spreadsheets into a single-screen dynamic data visualization tool. SMU instructors’ newfound ability to see, hear and play with data through shape, color, sound and time afforded a level of analysis and understanding that resulted in the overhaul of decades-old policies in their instruction and curriculum.

Increases reader engagement and user participation

Interactive infographics or otherwise gamifying data like Data Cartographer does can substantially increase the amount of time someone will spend with the content and the degree to which they participate in the information, both in its collection and its dissemination.

Infographics bring a physicality to data that heightens the appeal factor. They can serve as powerhouse punches in otherwise large grey fields of text on the page or screen. And, from a purely aesthetic perspective, information graphics can be beautiful to look at and clever in their design.

USA Today was a pioneer in the use of information graphic design to work complex concepts into digestible dynamic content. In fact, their prolific use of infographics has become a hallmark of their brand. Their Snapshots® series is great model for taking what might otherwise be boring sets of numbers and making them fun, witty and eye-catching. Good Magazine also has a great collection of complex and engaging infographics.

Huh? After studying this one for several minutes, I still don't have a clue.
Huh? After studying this one for several minutes, I still don't have a clue.

When it's not so great

Because of their impact, infographics are widely used nowadays. A quick google will produce a huge array of great examples—as well as poor ones. Because while people recognize the value of information graphic design, and a number of tools are available today that make the creation of them possible for the layperson, it doesn’t mean that they’re all successful or even necessary.

In the example to the right, the information would be better presented as a simple question and answer: How many airplane seats are left empty each year? Enough to keep Chicago O'Hare airport busy for 217 days. Even then the information here is still confusing, so the best solution might be a good edit on the text to make sure numbers and comparisons make sense.

In the second part of our look at data visualization, we outline best practices to follow when creating information graphics.

[1] Semetko, H. & Scammell, M. (2012). The SAGE Handbook of Political Communication, SAGE Publications.

[2] Lester, P. M. (2006). Syntactic Theory of Visual Communication.