3 more ‘dirty secrets’ of data visualisation

Make sure you don’t end up with pointless charts

The recent net magazine post listing the ‘seven secrets about data visualisation‘ was particularly relevant to us at Strategic Apps, as data visualisations are a common request of client projects. The article listed common pitfalls and misconceptions about data visualisation and it’s application, including truth’s such as ‘real data is ugly’ and ‘a bar chart is usually better.’

The points made are often very true when companies try to get clarity from data visuals. If the aim is to demystify the clutter of cold figures and large tables, then visuals must go the opposite way and show upmost simplicity in presentation. However the flaws can often occur when aiming for such simplicity and glamorous display, making the charts ambiguous and unrepresentative of the reality. Cutting out the boring data, busy jumpy shiny graphics and ever more inventive methods of showing numbers in colours and shapes can ironically make the data more cryptic and irretrievable than it’s previous form.

This is not to discredit the power and usefulness of data visualisations, only their potential misuse. Client projects have often been heavily focused around awesome graphics that enable fast insights for business decisions, but significantly when they have the correct data. With this in mind we’ve concluded three more ‘dirty secrets’ need adding to the list, and considering them can ensure correct usage of charts:

1.Visuals can easily misrepresent the truth

It seems illogical that a chart generated by the data directly fed to it should provide false results, but it’s more a question of perception. There are many famous examples of drawing false conclusions from a select set of information, but even the chart could be presented in such a way that favours looking great over the dull honesty.

Coincedental correlations often occur, though probably not here..

2.Visuals can make things less clear

It will depend entirely on the options available in your data management tools, but selecting the wrong type of chart or plotting the wrong fields on each axis can give deeply confusing outcomes. Prioritising viewing a chart rather than looking over the full range of data might leave the viewer in the dark about what’s really going on, unless the correct fields are being compared in a way that’s productive.

3.One set of visuals could tell you nothing at all

If checking regular reports, such as a weekly or monthly summary, it could be giving false trends over an insufficient time. It’s always alot easier to to see an up or down trend on a line graph than a table of data, but it also becomes easier to see lines and draw conclusions without the full picture. It’s human nature to spot trends, but it’s also in our nature to spot non existent trends too!

Making it work for you

The massive web trend for infographics to tell us information and stats shows how they perfectly suit our modern fascination with quick data interest. The availability of easy charting tools to make stunning visuals are everywhere, and the offshoot from this should be a generation of smart, knowledgeable people and businesses for making informed decisions. But without the correct strategy for making these visuals, there’s always the potential for nasty misuses of the wrong information, time to get smart with our data.

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