Monday, October 17, 2011

3 Steps to Make Your Data Standout

How do you prove that you have the best idea or solution? Data. Back up your assertions with real numbers. We tend to believe quantitative data.

Step one: provide real-world data.

For example, you say your solution saves money. You could provide a spreadsheet that compares your solution’s costs to the current solution based on research conducted by a reputable resource. Unfortunately, spreadsheets can be difficult to digest and are far from memorable and compelling. Look at the following example. Is this the fastest way to analyze data?

Because, like you, viewers are often resource starved, rushed, and hate sifting through mountains of data to do their job, it is in our best interest to make data analysis easy.

Step two: turn data into a quantitative chart.

Consolidate data into bite size chunks that can be analyzed quickly. (You can include your spreadsheets as back up data when applicable.) Quantitative charts—like bar charts, area charts, line charts, and pie charts—make it easy to compare data. (To see more examples quantitative charts visit How easy is it to compare the following numbers?

Although much improved over a spreadsheet, a quantitative chart is not that memorable. Let’s face it, you see countless bar charts, area charts, line charts, and pie charts every year. What do you remember? If you are like me, not much.

Step three: use visual embellishment.
The Department of Computer Science, University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada conducted an experiment to determine if visual embellishment in information charts was a detractor. Below is an excerpt from this study:

“Guidelines for designing information charts often state that the presentation should reduce ‘chart junk’ – visual embellishments that are not essential to understanding the data. In contrast, some popular chart designers wrap the presented data in detailed and elaborate imagery, raising the questions of whether this imagery is really as detrimental to understanding as has been proposed, and whether the visual embellishment may have other benefits. To investigate these issues, we conducted an experiment that compared embellished charts with plain ones, and measured both interpretation accuracy and long-term recall. We found that people‘s accuracy in describing the embellished charts was no worse than for plain charts, and that their recall after a two-to-three-week gap was significantly better.”

The following example published in the study’s findings shows a chart developed by Nigel Holmes (left), a renowned visual communicator, and a “plain version.” Which is more memorable?

For best results, I recommend combining a quantitative chart with a visual metaphor, simile, analogy or icon/symbol. Use of metaphors, similes, analogies, and icons to support data is proven to increase recollection. In the following example I use the material (lumber) for my bars to better communicate the subject matter and increase the likelihood that my data will stand out and be remembered (compared to other bar charts).

Most quantitative charts are far from unique and, therefore, fail to stand out. Using a visually embellished quantitative chart helps your data stand out, be remembered and, ultimately, help you succeed.

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