In March and April 2013, the Harvard Business Review published a series of blogs on the subject “Visualizing Data”. Here I survey the series by piecing together quotations from the blogs. The HBR Insight Center is at hbr.org/special-collections/insight/visualizing-data.
The best visualizations cause you to see something you weren’t expecting, and allow you to act on it […]. The data, then, exists for two purposes: verifying what we already know, and exposing us to what we don’t […].
The ability to ask good questions is really what we start with […]. As we understand our data, it brings up new and better questions for us to answer. Budgeting time for this exploration is necessary to creating a valuable resource that will help you communicate with your audience […]. Any good visualization process is iterative. And if we allow ourselves to think more about the value of the branching points of that process than we do a single result, we leave ourselves open to many more possibilities […].
Data slides aren’t really about the data. They’re about the meaning of the data. And it’s up to you to make that meaning clear before you click away. Otherwise, the audience won’t process—let alone buy—your argument […]. An idea without supporting data; a list; a business plan; a resume—none of these are infographics, no matter what they’re labeled […].
I see beautiful exercises in special effects that show off statistical and technical skills, but do not clearly serve an informing purpose. That’s what makes me squirm. Ultimately, data visualization is about communicating an idea that will drive action. Understanding the criteria for information to provide valuable insights and the reasoning behind constructing data visualizations will help you do that with efficiency and impact […].
Infographics should (quite literally) be seen more as interfaces to interpersonal engagement than aesthetically pleasing packages of numbers and analytics. The essential question smart “visualization” and “visualizers” should address is not, “What’s the best and most accessible way of presenting the data?” but “What kinds of conversation and interaction should our visualization evoke?” […].
We tend to treat data as “truth,” as if it is immutable and only has one perspective to present. If someone uses data in a visualization, we are inclined to believe it. We don’t see in the finished product the many transformations and manipulations of the data that were involved, along with their inherent social, political, and technological biases […].
If you work in a large organization and want it to make better use of visualization, I’d argue that commonality is more important than creativity. If you can establish a common visual language for data, you can radically upgrade the use of the data to drive decision-making and action […].
Visualization tools allow users to explore, summarize, and visualize data in the way they see fit as opposed to the way someone else saw fit to allow them. Using the tools should help even non-numerate users gain greater comfort with the data (one hopes) and along with that comes growing ability to draw increasingly sophisticated insights. And that’s when the big data investments really start to pay off […].