The availability of good quality data is a great business asset and competitive advantage. Once you have gathered accurate and relevant data, you can use it to persuade potential buyers and close deals, build consensus within your own organization or devise competitive strategy. In all these cases you need to present the data to various stakeholders either within or outside the company. Is the manner in which you present data daunting or confusing to your audience, or do you know how to communicate data effectively?
When data is communicated effectively, multiple stakeholders are able to understand it and engage with it so as to achieve their own objectives as well as collective goals. Teams that discuss data that has been communicated effectively and is understood by everyone are more likely to uncover insights and craft sound strategy, rather than puzzling over what the data means.
Accordingly, communicating data effectively is extremely important in the business context. Let’s examine the right approaches to achieve this.
Tailored to the needs of stakeholders
When you design a system or format for data presentation, it’s essential to understand the needs of your users. What are the specific objectives that your data will help them to achieve? Clarity about goals provides a direction to your data reporting methods and also helps quantify the business benefits of your reports.
For these objectives, what is the data that they need to see and in what ways should they be able to interact with it? Will they be viewing the data on desktop or mobile devices? Do they require reports or charts to be available when they are working within a system such as an ERP or CRM?
Once you have clarity about these aspects, you can plan ways to communicate data that best meets the needs of your stakeholders. You should also consider that stakeholders should be able to use your data presentation intuitively, without needing technical support or extensive training.
If users are going to view your data primarily on mobile devices, you need to consider the smaller screen space and carefully select what you will share. Your data reports or dashboards must be clear and compact in order to work well on mobile devices, and the interactive features should be easy to use on mobiles.
Good design aids understanding and appeals to users
You need to put careful thought into the design of your data reports, graphs, dashboards or visualizations. In order to communicate data effectively, your reports and dashboards should be simple to understand as well as visually appealing.
An important starting point is deciding what you will present. With new-age digital technologies, there is a proliferation of data. However, we don’t want our audience to drown in data! What is it that they need to see and how will it be communicated most effectively — as a table, or a simple chart, or an interactive visualization? If you are building a dashboard you may want to start with summarized data and allow users to drill down and learn more about those aspects that they find interesting.
Some situations call for a data story — that is, a sequence of visualizations that helps users to navigate the data and reach a specific point.
Presenting data visually enables the communication of large volumes of complex data using concise snapshots that take advantage of the human brain’s ability to process visual information.
Colors are important to communicate data effectively
Most of us intuitively interpret the meaning of colors, and these are universally understood. If you create a gauge to communicate sales bookings versus targets, you can use red to indicate values below targets and green for the range that is over the target. This will help viewers to grasp the situation at a glance. On the other hand, if you were to interchange the red and green it would cause much confusion. When we create heat maps, darker colors are always used to indicate larger quantities. Think about how color can help communicate your data and select color combinations that will aid understanding.
Colors are also useful to make your reports and dashboards more appealing, but remember to keep white space around the colorful elements, for relief. White space prevents your report or dashboard from appearing cluttered and increases its visual appeal.
Select the right chart technique
There are many different techniques to communicate data visually, from simple line graphs or bar charts to spider charts, treemaps, and word clouds. The availability of software tools has made it easy for us to plot many new types of charts. However, some of the old ones still work very well, especially because they are extremely familiar to us and we can grasp their meaning at a glance. When you are using charts, it is important to select a chart type that is best suited to the data and helps viewers to interpret it; remember, fancier is not necessarily better.
Bar charts are usually used to compare different values in the same category, while line graphs display data relative to a continuous variable, such as time. Scatter plots are used to see two variables and understand the relation between them. Pie charts are most effectively used to communicate the parts that make up a whole. Linear or radial gauges are best suited to compare two values on the same scale. Heat maps are an extremely effective tool to understand the nature of data — variance, patterns, similarities, and correlations. Radar or spider charts help to communicate the values of different parameters for a particular series and compare a small number of such series. Treemaps are an effective technique to communicate complex data by displaying hierarchies and relative values.
While these are some of the most popular techniques used to present data, there are many others and you can experiment and decide for yourself which best suits your data and objectives. Your reports should give users a quick sense of the data and its meaning, and also enable meaningful observation, such as comparisons, or viewing trends over time.
Consider the hierarchy of data
Users appreciate reports and dashboards that provide information that is most important to them right away and give them the ability to find more details. Organizing your data well is an important aspect of communicating it effectively.
The same data usually needs to be communicated in different ways to the different roles within an organization. A CXO may want to see a summarized report of organization-wide data, while a factory manager may want to see more details pertaining to her own factory, and a production shift-in-charge may want to see data about each machine on the shop floor. Design the report or visualization for each role by keeping this data hierarchy need in mind.
Make it easy to interact with data
Can your audience explore the data on their own to find meaning and discover insights? Features such as filters, hovers, drill-downs, and selectors can help them see the data from different perspectives or perform ‘‘what-if” analysis. Add such interactive features in order to bring out the real power of data for your users.
While communicating data effectively should certainly be a goal, there are many challenges to achieving it. Our audience is likely to be flooded with information and media from many different channels, so our data reports have to compete for attention. The fast pace of work, exposure to multiple media channels, plus the increasing tendency to multi-task has led to shortened attention spans. This means that we cannot share reports that take too long to understand or force the user to struggle to derive meaning, as our target users may choose not to engage with them.
Thoughtful design and execution will enable us to communicate data effectively so that users can interpret abstract information in a convenient and meaningful manner.