In today’s world, data volumes are growing by the minute. Assuming you had to analyze millions of rows of data in a short span of time to make critical business decisions, how would you go about it? What would be the best, most efficient way to analyse all this information and simplify the decision making process? Drawing insights from huge volumes of information can be challenging and time-consuming. However, transforming large quantities of data into a worthy story calls for visualizing data in a simple manner.
Data Stories construct a visual narrative out of data, and help audiences rapidly grasp and derive conclusions from complex facts. Using stories to convey a message is not a new thing. Visualization is the most primitive form of communication known to man, and can be traced to cave drawings from as far back as 30,000 B.C.
Data can be used to ‘explain’ a story; alternatively, you could ‘explore’ data to discover many such stories.
Let us understand what it takes to use data to convey a story to an audience.
Any good storyteller should be able to persuade, influence and motivate an audience with their story. To define your narrative or convey a particular message that resonates with readers, you must have a clear understanding of the audience in terms of their role etc. To craft a compelling story, you must create a context that readers can relate to. For instance, if your story is about your sales’ actual performance, you could include your goals or your actual trend in the previous quarter to provide a context or background for your narrative.
Before you begin to analyse or visualize your data, it’s important to understand what questions you are trying to answer with the data in hand. Let’s say that you are looking at education data from the last five years. You may wonder which cities have the highest literacy rates and which ones the lowest. Perhaps your aim is to understand what the male to female graduation ratio is, or how many schools there are in a particular neighborhood. Once such questions start taking shape, you will begin to have a rough idea of the kind of story that you might want to tell. Keep following this approach as you unearth data and come up with new questions. This will help you arrive at a narrative outline. A solid narrative is key to making sense of data and sets the direction for further analysis.
Structure is what holds a story together. How you arrange the information that’s being conveyed, and the manner in which you do so, is what makes the data easily accessible. Both these elements are necessary if users are to easily assimilate the information being presented. Establish the context, and allow users to discover the underlying dynamic of cause and effect as the story unravels. Conclude with a call to action or recommendation. This sequence of information delivery helps get the message across and presents the right level of complexity and detail at the right time.
Good visualizations have the power to present data in such a way that the viewer can explore and understand the ‘story’ behind it. This requires adequate knowledge of visual perception and the application of design principles to convert data into stories with visual human context. It’s important to understand the data that you are trying to visualize including its size, cardinality and the visuals that are best suited to this purpose.
The more complex the data is, bigger the role that colour plays when it comes to presenting information in an organized manner. When used well, a colour scheme can enhance the information display; when used poorly, it can be misleading or confusing to users. An effective use of colour will group related items by function and command attention proportionate to their importance. Understanding the principles of colour theory and how humans perceive and respond to colours is critical for a storyteller to provide an enhanced user experience.
Becoming an expert data storyteller requires a solid foundation and knowledge of these five areas. Data visualization works best when an individual is able to not only understand the data at hand but the principles of visual design and communication as well.