Showing the story behind the data

The name Nicholas Feltron will be familiar to many people, many more than might have thought they’d be interested in looking at graphs. His annual reports graphically chart the story of his year: from the food he’s eaten (30% animals with fins; 37% with legs in 2007) to the cumulative miles traveled (38,524 miles in 2008) and plants killed (4 in 2006 including 1 cactus). Feltron’s swiss-clean design aesthetic is beautiful, yes, but it’s the story behind the graphs that make his reports so appealing and utterly intriguing. Feltron has demonstrated that numbers can be interesting if the stories behind them are revealed. Without the story and his amusing juxtapositions, they’d just be a random list of inconsequential data.

Page detail from Nicholas Feltron’s 2007 Annual Report

But Feltron is lucky, he has lived the story behind the data, so is easily able to devise an interesting graphical narrative for us. When analysing raw qualitative data, however, it can be hard to see the story. This is where the correlation of qualitative and quantitative data becomes important.

We recently concluded a project for a client that involved analysis of two years of service data and metrics. Initially the sheer wealth of quantitative data was fairly impenetrable. Yes we were able to slice and dice it in this way and that way, but what did it all mean?

Qualitative insights make quantitative data penetrable

The data remained impenetrable until we conducted qualitative contextual research with the people that were using the service. Suddenly inspiration as to where to look for insights came to life. Instead of panning for gold and finding only mud, our analysis of the quantitative data started to reveal gold – the type of gold that reveals meaningful insights that help drive business strategy.

Abstracted snippet from a recent research report by Meld Studios

Show the story

Edward Tufte, the Lord of Infographics*, says “show the data”, but we’d also like to add, “show the story”. Humans are much better able to gather insights when information is communicated to us in a way that allows us to make connections between the data and how it may affect us or others for whom we are designing, and stories are perfect for that task. Linking a story to the data is just the thing to make the message stick.

Information visualisation has become very popular and is fueling debate within the visualisation fraternity as to the validity of recent output. Nicholas Feltron’s approach is being ‘borrowed’ by many people (us included, we admit) to help tell stories. This ‘visualisation consumerism’ (as data researcher¬†Enrico Bertini calls it) is used to show data to a large amount of people. Bertini says there is nothing inherently wrong with this approach if it’s done well and it’s used to help people “generate knew knowledge”. But if it’s used thoughtlessly to ‘sex up’ boring reports then it just becomes visual junk food: high in short-term pleasure but devoid of anything that will give you long-term sustenance.

For us, information visualisation is all about communication not decoration.

* As Edward Tufte is at times referred to by blithering infographics tragics such as myself.

Thanks to Iain Barker for his assistance in writing this post.

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