This Is What Data Visualization Is (And Why It It Is Important)

You’ve got data. Now what. How do you present this as clear, actionable information? How do you take massive amounts of data and present it in a way that is easily identifiable and is not missed in a sea of numbers and text? That is where data visualization comes in.

So, what is Data visualization?

Let’s call it a snapshot or graphic representation of information. That’s easy. It is definitely more nuanced than that, though.

What is data?

Data are units of quantitative (numerical data) or qualitative (non-numerical descriptive data) information collected through observation about persons, events, objects, trends etc.

What is visualization?

Visualization is any technique for creating images, diagrams or animations to communicate a message.

So, let’s put the two together and we have our simple and clear definition of Data Visualization.

Data visualization is simply the technique of presenting information from collected quantitative and\or qualitative data in the form of images, diagrams or animations.

To better understand what it is, let’s talk a little about how it is done. All to help business users make informed decisions.

What are the different types of Data visualization?

Information from data can be presented in several forms. You may be familiar with many of these visual graphics. Here’s a bit more than a highlight of common types of visualization:

  • Bar graph/ Bar chart- presents quantitative data using parallel rectangular bars with heights or lengths proportional to the value that they represent
  • Line chart- shows links between different data points by connecting them with a continuous line.
  • Pie chart – is a round pie looking chart with slices indicating different categories of facts with the sizes showing the greater or lesser instances of occurrence
  • Scatter plot- is like a line chart without the line connecting the data points
  • Flow chart- shows the steps of boxes of various kinds and their order by connecting the boxes with arrows.
  • Matrix chart- shows the relationship between two, three or four groups of information and gives information about said relationship.
  • Histogram- uses x and y axis to show a range of outcomes against the number or percentage of occurrences
  • Venn diagrams- shows overlapping similarities and non-overlapping distinctions.
  • Tree diagram- represents the hierarchical nature of a structure in graph form
  • Word clouds – indicates frequent and popular word tag descriptors
  • Timelines- indicates chronology
  • Time series- shows a sequence of data points typically consisting of successive measurements made over a time interval
  • Maps- this includes but not limited to, dot distribution map which uses dot symbol to show the presence of a feature on a map and choropleth which shows areas patterned or shaded to represent the measurement of a statistical variable

We could go on. There are so many others like bullet graphs, icons/images, tables, heat maps, area charts, matrix, network, streamgraph and so forth. There are various data visualization software that give more categories, and even help with how and when they ought to be used.

There is, of course, a science to Data Visualization. Questions must be asked about what type is best for the information you are trying to present. There is also a lot to learn about the correct use of colors, how to keep your visuals free of cluster and how to grab and keep attention. Using the right visual formats is not always cut & dry! More on key principles of a good data viz can be found here

So, what is the big deal about Data visualization?

Simply put. We are in a data-driven world. Nearly every profession has to deal with a lot of data.

With the availability of increased tools for data collection, we have a new challenge. We have to deal with what I am inclined to call too much information. We now have to find creative ways to take all of that and simplify them into discernible, understandable and actionable information and make sound business decisions.

Asking for a lot, huh?

Human beings have had to receive and interpret information in form of visuals much longer than we have had to use text and numbers. The human brain is just wired that way. As the very common saying goes, “a picture is worth a thousand words”.

A good graph showing the profitability of a company or business over the course of ten years at a glance -with the use of color- red in years where loses were incurred and black where the business was profitable -is worth a thousand pages of numerical and textual data showing the same set of facts. That’s where the magic that turns into effective business insights comes in.

Presenting large amounts of data to an audience may lead to information overload. You may not be able to retain the attention of your audience and many important points will be lost.

However, what happens happens you take that overload & put it into an effective data visualization? Actual business intelligence!

Data visualization helps to highlight important points. It is easy to miss out on important information while scanning through several pages of text. The eyes may be drawn to some sets of information, the mind may retain some but certain very essential main points may be missed. Now you can highlight important information so it is easily identifiable and it is easier to let your audience know what the data collected was trying to say.

Data Visualization helps to provide context and show relationship between numbers, patterns and trends that would otherwise have been scattered throughout the document or other sources. Basically, if you can’t mentally connect the dots, a good data visualization would connect them for you using visualization techniques.

How about a visualization in action?

Let’s say you have collected data about the performance of a Covid 19 vaccine in different countries. You are trying to present how much of it has been rolled out, the previous rate of infections and deaths, the reduction in the rate of infections and deaths and how much of that change is directly linked to the vaccine roll out. However, you have to present this information to a diverse class of people that have to understand, evaluate and make decisions on the basis of the set of numbers and facts collected. We are talking about a mixed crowd of scientists, pharmaceutical executives, investors, politicians and even a group of regular people, some of whom may still be debating whether or not to take the vaccine.

How do you achieve your goal? How do you present the different factors while highlighting the success of the vaccine in the midst of all the data collected. By using a graph or a color-coded matrix chart or dot distribution map, you can ensure that all the parties concerned can immediately interpret and digest the data you have collected and analyzed.

There is also the problem of even remembering the information. We tend to remember images better. That is exactly why story telling is one of the best ways of communicating information. It is a way of stirring the mind to remember facts in the form of images. When this is applied to the presentation of information gotten from data, there is a greater chance that the facts would be retained in the memory whereas numbers and text may be quickly forgotten.

Taking from our previous example; if a family was having a debate about whether to take the vaccine or not.  A person who had access, either via a google search or power point presentation, to the information above may not remember the numbers presented regarding the rate of infections prior to the vaccine, a record of various factors that affected the numbers and how much the numbers were reduced in certain areas where the vaccines had been widely distributed. However, a color-coded graph or a dot distribution map containing the conclusion aimed at and gleaned from that data would be easily recalled and repeated.

Importance of Data Visualization

Data visualization has had an incredible impact on the world as a whole as it has been presenting data to transfer information to the human brain. There is a lot of value in data visualization that accounts to represent a message and pass the message across. Below is a list of the importance of data visualization.

1.    It helps the human brain process data quickly and more effectively.

We, as humans, only have so much that we can process. Guess what. You and therefore your audience can process more if you give us pictures over a table.

That’s where data visualization comes in. Actionable insights happen when you allow the pictures to do some of the processing for you. Faster decision making for the win!

2.    It helps people to analyze data better and focus on the aspects that need attention.

Data visualization helps people understand the important points in a report without needing to be an analyst. This allows users to focus on the areas which actually require their attention.

A visual representation of data helps a company to make more profit through better analysis and decision making.

3.    It increases the rate at which a decision is made.

We’ve already established that visualized data speeds up the rate that a person can process information quickly and more effectively. Data visualization also enables decision-makers to take quick actions if the information is simplified and in easy-to-understand manner that data visualization tools lend themselves to.

4.    Easy Understanding and Comprehension of Complicated Data.

Complicated data can be simplified through the use of data visualization. This is where using the right chart for the right data comes into play. The type of chart you use matters as it does not help business leaders if you’ve just made complex visualizations layered on the complex data. Nope.

The valuable insights will come from simplification of any data visualization. Highlight the problems. Highlight the outliers.

Sometimes I see reports where a bubble chart was thrown in. It’s like the requestor or creator just got tired of a bar chart. I get it! This stuff can be fun! However, baking in good principles of design will help process complex insights within your organization. 

That’s ultimately what we’re trying to achieve!

5.    Strengthens the Impact of the message.

Data visualization strengthens the impact of the message on the audience and it helps to present the data in a persuading manner. Data visualization also helps to pass the message across in a compelling way. Visual representations are the most meaningful ways to pass the right message to your audience. This is due to the fact that the human mind and brain is wired to easily grasp visual or graphical representation of data.

6.    It helps to identify errors, anomalies, and legitimate problems

Data visualization helps to easily identify and correct errors in data. Visual or graphical representation of data makes a data organized and it is easier to fish out errors in an organized data when compared to an unorganized data.

Recently, I was reviewing some dashboards within a call center operation. I was new working with them, so I was just exploring and digging into their existing dashboards. Through this, I found what is essentially a line that was getting disconnected. No calls were coming in for a specific customer in a specific timeframe. No one had noticed because the calls are sent to a group that was overall getting calls.

An entire subset of customers were not getting served. Data visualization to the rescue.

Final Thoughts

I hope you have a better understanding of how data can better serve you and your organization by just adding visual interest. That’s all this really is, after all! Capturing attention to find problems, maximize & optimize!

Read on to learn when to use data visualization if you would like more depth.