In the world of data analysis, the ability to effectively communicate your insights to stakeholders can be the difference between data being heard or ignored. Effective data visualizations allow you to communicate important insights to stakeholders.
Alli Torban is a recognized expert in the field of data visualizations. She has shared her insights on stages big and small, and has been recognized with the Impactful Community Leader award from the Data Visualization Society. She is also the host of the Data Viz Today podcast.
This article features a Q&A from the Data Chats podcast episode featuring Alli Torban on her advice for effective data visualizations and trends she has seen in the field.
What does data visualization strive to be and what are the big areas most people can improve on?
The biggest part that I have found that will make your visualizations look intentional is to start with some sort of brief.
Think about who your audience is and what you’re trying to achieve with your graphic. What is the one thing you want your audience to take away? If you’re not thinking about that, then you’re just going to dive into an Excel sheet and you’re going to go with the default.
What is your process when creating a data visualization for a client?
I start with one brief, but there are some sections that I might skip depending on the details of the project. If it’s more of a data art project, I might not need one section. Or if it’s a dashboard, I might not need so much art direction.
[Want to use the same process Alli does? Download her Data Visualization Design Brief here.]
Typically, someone comes to me saying we need some help with data visualizations. We have a discovery call to learn more about each other and their visualization goals.
After that, I’ll do data exploration, create prototypes, and then get feedback, and more rounds of feedback on them. I’ll clean up the prototype and deliver it in the high-fidelity format we’ve talked about. If it’s something static, I’m working in Adobe Illustrator or Figma. If it’s something more interactive, then maybe I’m using Tableau, or another off-the-shelf tool. So that’s kind of my overall process.
When I’m doing the kickoff call, I’m going through my questionnaire and generally it has about five different sections:
- What is this project?
- Why are you doing this project now?
- What’s your timeline?
- Who needs to approve the final graphic?
- What’s the goal for the project?
Another helpful question is: how will we know we’re successful? Try to dig into the metrics as much as possible, because sometimes people haven’t thought of what the success criteria would look like. It’s kind of my favorite thing to talk about because it is really hard to quantify what makes a visualization successful.
How can you tell when a data visualization works? Do you actually test it with metrics and do some kind of survey or audience research?
Yes. If my client has a test group that I can work with, that’s always the best-case scenario. But it’s pretty rare that they have somebody that I can use that doesn’t already know what’s happening.
If you want to test true memorability, you need some fresh eyes. So I actually use a website called Usabilityhub.com and it’s paid. You can set up all sorts of design tests, upload an image, or you can upload a figma prototype link, and you can ask it certain questions. You can have a five second test where you showed the visualization for five seconds and then it takes it away and asks a question. That way you know exactly what they’re taking away. That’s a good test.
Another test I do is to put the visualization in front of them and ask some questions like: what do you think this graphic is showing? Or why do you think X, Y and Z? See if they are getting the takeaway action I want.
Do you have guidance for how to work with stakeholders. What are common issues?
A big spot where things can go wrong is when more stakeholders are brought in in the middle or towards the end, which can make a project take forever.
When you’re in a company, sometimes you don’t have any say, to be like, you can’t bring in that stakeholder at this phase. You can’t really say that. So the way that I combat that is at the beginning of every presentation, every concept presentation, and every time I’m presenting, I start with the goal of the audience and our established success criteria. So our main goal was to be able to communicate X, Y, and Z to this audience, and our audience is CEOs at this company.
What are you using for sketching? Are you sketching on the computer?
I use a pen and pencil when I am sketching for myself. When I’m doing something more illustration based, I’m actually using my iPad and I have an app on there called Procreate, which is just a drawing app and it’s really flexible and easy to use. It looks a bit better than hand drawings that I scanned in from paper.
And then as far as database tools, I use Tableau a lot. The nice thing about Tableau is that you can export your chart as SVG image format if you have a paid license. That means you can bring it into Adobe Illustrator or Figma and then edit all the elements. That’s helpful because it’s kind of difficult to bring your design to the next level in Tableau. But it’s really great for just setting up the bones of a chart.
I also use RAWgraphs.io. That’s a web-based tool, and it’s free. You can just paste your data in there and download it as an image or an SVG image format. I have found that RAWgraphs is great when you want to do more of the bespoke chart types.
How do you stay creative?
I have developed a creative practice for data practitioners to bring creativity into their work. I recommend gathering inspiration from books and spending 10 minutes each day flipping through three books – one skill-related book, one visually stimulating book, and one wild card.
This process helps me stay open-minded about the different types of visualizations I can create for clients, such as pie charts, illustrations, comics or dashboards.
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