Thomas Oriol
SalesClic

The importance of data visualisation

Thomas Oriol, CEO at SalesClic, looks at the data visualisation in the workplace.

You have been working on a complex project for some time. Your manager comes to you and asks “When will you complete this project?” Numerous experiments have demonstrated that your estimate will be significantly more accurate if formulated with a calendar in front of you. Time is abstract - visualizing it makes you smarter.

Business life is full of abstractions and data points (increasingly so), and our modest human brain is often overwhelmed. The problem is that evolution has trained us to react fast and reflect later. So unbeknownst to us, faced with a difficult question, our brain will often deliver a quick and very dirty answer that our consciousness will then strive to rationalize. Daniel Kahneman, who won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2002, calls this process “thinking fast and slow”.

Good data visualization is a great way to minimize that problem. But it means more than pretty charts and sexy tables. For optimal decision making, what principles should you follow when presenting business information?

  • Mental model: You must present your information in a format that respects the mental model of your audience. For example a pie chart will be more appropriate than a bar chart to discuss revenue sharing percentages. That mental model will often be a real-world equivalent. It will always be simple - data visualization is an area where sophistication should be hidden.
  • Instant feedback: When presenting dynamic information, make sure that any action required from your audience receives visual (and logical) feedback. For example, in an income statement, changing the net income from positive to negative could switch the corresponding line from green to red.
  • No report: You love reports, right? These detailed tables and expert commentaries that are so interesting they are instantly forgotten… Business software and presentations have the unfortunate habit of segregating analysis and management. An effective remedy is the combination, on a single interface, of small but graphical alerts for dynamic insights and subdued text/data for descriptive information. There are beautiful examples of such visuals in Edward Tufte’s Envisioning Information.
  • Conventions: Conformism can be an asset. Some visual conventions may be suboptimal in theory, but replacing them with personal creations will only confuse your audience. If you really believe that respecting the convention is costing you key information, then refer to the previous paragraph in this article and use graphical alerts to make your point.

Although businesses are increasingly aware of the importance of data visualization, the lure of “more is better” is still strong. So when selecting a business application or preparing a corporate presentation, remember that clarity pays!

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