Tag Archives: data presentation

How to present numbers involved in people tragedies?

Every day, we have been bombarded with news about people cruelty toward other people or animals and natural and unnatural disasters that result in many deaths. It is now even doubled because of COVID-19 and its death toll. You could say that there is nothing spectacular in it. From the first time man set foot on Earth: Famine, Plague and War are our inseparable companions, and in the era when we plan to conquer the Universe, they are still not defeated.

However, most of these terrifying scenes are somewhere long distance from our safe and cosy homes. In addition, we are overwhelmed by violence presented in mass media. That gives us the impression that those situations are unrealistic and abstract. We hardly attach them to real people, victims and it is going to be even worse as we learnt from the latest studies about decreasing empathy.

For instance, I experience the same feeling of indifference when looking at COVID-19 statistics. These are ONLY numbers. Dehumanized numbers like production series or kilometres run in your tracking app. And that scares me a lot.

A situation when people (or any other living creature) are presented as a sequence of numbers scares me. When we use some abstract forms to identify persons, there is a danger that we will perceive them as objects and not as subjects. I witnessed behaviours involving the use of employee numbers in internal communication and it was a part of the culture. For me, this approach detached living people from their formal functions and roles. Roles become impersonal. There are no people, there are only cogs in the machine or resources to use and to get rid of when used.

So how to present numbers and communicate real people tragedies?

Language

Another thing is the language used to describe victims. Many times, the word “case”, “deaths” or “fatal accident” replaces words “wounded people”, “died people”, “victims”. Especially in medical statistics like presented in Figure 1 number of people who died and recovered from COVID-19 (statistics for a particular point in time).

Using abstract forms do not help in building vivid pictures in the mind of our audience of happy people, who recovered from the awful disease and went back to their families or plunged in grief over the loss of their loved ones. And this is what we would like to achieve – move their imagination to evoke their feelings.

Which of those subtitles in Figure 1 are more dramatic?

Figure 1

Numbers

People, in general, have problems with understanding big numbers, statistics and abstract visual forms presenting the information. The numbers in Figure 1 are so enormous that is hard to imagine them. To convey information effectively we must downsize it and chunk to the well-known, familiar, and easy to interpret elements.

In Figure 2 we can see the percentage of how many people died vs recovered from COVID -19. I used the abstract visual form to present information – pie chart and impersonal, medical description – death rate, closed cases. Nothing about victims.

Figure 2

How can we interpret this picture? If we are good at maths and understand the concept behind percentages, we can have the impression that 2% is a quite low chance to die of COVID-19 and there is no big deal (I won’t vaccinate myself! It’s a mystification to implant a chip on me!). And again, using the word doesn’t help us understand a real, current threat. “Death” for most of us is a metaphysical conception that lies somewhere in the far distant future.

Iconographic

To downsize information and present it in a more readable format, we can use graphical representation, small objects that symbolize humans. This approach lets an audience understand the range of coronavirus death toll because the big number was chunked into small pieces (1 out of 50). Number 50 is much closer to our imagination than 5 613 594. Using human symbols I emphasized that numbers are related to people.

Do you feel now more or less certain that COVID-19 is not a big deal?

Figure 3

Time

We can use the time to strengthen our message significantly when we embedded our audience into the present moment and convert statistics into occurrences. With this tactic, we can easily emphasise how human life is fragile because when you are reading this text every nine-second someone passes away because of the corona virus (again I used a 2% death rate). You can use animated gifs to be more dramatic.

How do you feel now with this knowledge?

Figure 4

I do not say that standard data visualisations are bad, and we should not use numbers or statistics. I just want to challenge anyone who communicates information to a wide audience to tailor better channels to make sure that a message gets properly understood, and people will start looking again at those who suffer… with appropriate respect.

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How to better design dashboards and reports. Data Storytelling in BI products design.

Not everyone has an opportunity to be on the first line and present data in front of the audience. Many are silent data heroes at the back of the stage. They constantly work with data to make sense of them and pass it on to others.

I know from my experience that in many organizations people work in silos, and it can be a tangible barrier in delivering well-designed, actionable dashboards. The best option to overcome this phenomenon is to make an effort and find end-users to gather their requirements and tailor reports for their specific needs. Only in this way you can find out what the true story should be built around a particular data set. The rest is a piece of cake.

Nevertheless, if you are one of that data heroes, to be honest, you are the true master here. You decide which data sets will be distributed within your organization and to what extent.  So, you may not be presenting the results in front of the audience, but they are likely seeing them with your eyes.

However, it is a double-edged sword. Having great influence results in having huge responsibility. It is a challenge for every communicator, and you are a kind of communicator because you prepare and hand down information.

I will just present only a few which I find very useful, and I often use them in my work. These technics are easy to remember and easy to implement, so everyone can benefit from them. They have similar usage as linguistic construction which can influence you to buy or do something.

We will go through:

  • Colour
  • Size
  • Shape
  • Common region
  • Position

COLOR

Humans see colours, maybe not in such spectacular range like other animals (check this article about hummingbirds), but still it is one of the most important senses that helps us understand the world and allows us to run away from wild animals in the jungle.

When it comes to designing dashboards, use colours to lead the audience from point to point. It is important to use just several ones. There is a good rule of five. Take five colours, assign to them meaning as for example white – the main colour for background, grey – major of data in data visualization, dark blue – numbers, black – text and icons, and orange – focal points. You can extend orange to orange and green if you want to differentiate positive and negative results.

In such way, you use colours on purpose and teach the audience their role in conveying the message.

To illustrate that we can compare these two pictures. Both charts present the same information – sales of regions. But the chart on the left side doesn’t promote any region. We can see all of them equally. It just aggregates information and presents them on the graph. However, the chart on the right side emphasises one of the regions (yes, that chart is created for the north region manager) by making it orange ( the darkest colour) and the rest regions greyish and tells a story about this specific region performance. The rest of the regions give context to the story.

Due to that simple change, you draw attention to one region and force others to look at it closely with avoiding special interest in other regions.

SHAPE / SIZE

What else you can use to push some information in front of another? Humans can see easily changes in sizes or shapes, so why not to use it for our purpose? Especially when we remember about people who have some colour seeing difficulties. Size and shape are another visual channel which can be used to spotlight some data. Make it bigger, make it stronger.

When we change solid line of North to dashed one and thicken it, our brain processes information even faster than before, because we use three visual channels to code this information: colour, shape, and size.

Even when we take out colour and leave visualization black and white (which sometimes serves the best for better contrast), we can still achieve the same result.

Size cannot be introduced in all visualizations. Would be hard to do it with bar chart. But regarding shape it is much easier. You can use pattern to fill in North bar.

Size is essential for presenting numbers. Differing numbers sizes, we control which of them play the first fiddle and which ones are providing additional information. Shape can be manifested in font type or its boldness. But we must remember here about the parent rule of readability. There is a general rule that on dashboards we use sans serif fonts because they are without any additional decorations and work better for displaying on screens.

Unexpectedly, font types can evoke some emotions or can reflect word meaning in their look. It is especially handy when you are about to design infographics.  See examples.

COMMON REGION

Do you know that people tend to group and interpret objects which are in the close or shared areas? This principle has even its own name as the Law of Common Region and was devised by Gestalt group in 1920s.

I’m a hard user of that techniques when it comes to design dashboards. A single piece of information itself has no impact, however, when you connect a few dots together, the message can be powerful. To make it happen, it is important to create a common area for these elements. We can do this by adding background or border and create visual boundaries.

POSITION

Studies regarding how people view websites, commonly known as Eyetracking, are consistent in results. The area with the greatest attention is the top-left corner of the page follows by the top-right corner, then the down-left and the last one is the down-right corner (see image below).

source

Of course, that we can use it to support data storytelling! Just divide a dashboard area into four quadrants and follow these two simple rules:

  • In 1&2 place information which you want to highlight as KPIs, the crucial changes in trends, threats and opportunities, and components which are essential to navigate on the dashboard.  Do not forget about the title. Use the best practices of designing UX (check this link about best practices in UX and find out what we have in common with goldfish).
  • In 3 & 4 are additional information that broadens perspectives or sheds another light on the already presenting data. At the bottom is the great place to place information about last data refresh, or report confidentiality.

Data storytelling is a mix of knowledge about data visual presentation, design and people perception. Having these components in place you are armed with a very powerful tool, which makes the audience listening to your voice…, even when this voice is behind dashboards that you deliver.

A confusing tram trip in Cracow – How humans read information.

It was several years ago. I was in Cracow and, I made an appointment with my friends in a nice vegetarian restaurant. I took with me my nine-year-old daughter. To get there we took a tram. My daughter was very excited about the event and, as a typical child her age, the minute we entered the tram, she started asking where we were getting off.

Fortunately, we sat down just next to an information board, where all the tram stops were displayed. So, I told her stop’s name, pointed to the board, explained to her how it works and proposed counting the stops on her own. I didn’t pay too much attention to it because Cracow is my hometown, and I knew it wasn’t far.

What a surprise it was to hear: “Mom, we’re on the 12th stop”. Knowing it cannot be right (the right number was 3rd), I asked her to count them again, but the response was the same. This situation repeated a few times till eventually she exploded and yelled at me. I swiftly considered the hypothesis that she must have been swapped in the hospital (obviously my own child would be smart enough to correctly count to 5!) and rejected it. Finally, I looked at the information board, and everything became clear. 

The culprit of this confusion was interpretation of the information board with tram stops. You see, western civilization uses the left-to-right reading pattern, so this reading order seems natural to us[1]. Linguistic and reading patterns affect reasoning of time and space, as well as relations between these two dimensions. My daughter made a subconscious assumption that the tram stops on the board were displayed in the “normal” order. Her assumption was totally right.

However, it displayed stops according to tram moving direction (right to left) but not with alignment of left to right perception of time (unexpecting design choice). Even though it consisted of a direction arrow, names of stops, and a moving ball pointing to the current stop, my daughter’s brain was still searching for the familiar left-to-right pattern.

And that is why her answer was 12th (count from the left side the stop marked with yellow circle!, but the start of the trip is on the right side)


This story is a great example how people consume information embedded in the time and how they expect it to be displayed. It’s worth remembering that, in our culture, information is read from left to right and from top to bottom. When we work on reports, dashboards or any data visuals, the human brain uses built-in patterns, helping to store information and save energy. Following this simple rule significantly improves the user experience. 

Check out my other posts about importance of the time orientation in data visualization:

[1]https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3322406/

Circle Charts – when design meets data

  • Circle charts are better to use for entertainment or information purpose. They are not the best choice for a business environment.
  • Circle charts are attractive for receivers and can pull them into your story.
  • Using multilayers demands providing a well-defined legend.

Humans always have had a special attitude to the sun. In prehistoric and ancient ages, in some cultures sun had the status of God. Without any scientific theories, they just knew that the sun is unique and has a crucial role for our planet and any living creature. Even in cultures where ancient humans did not worship the sun, the sun motif was commonly used to decorating buildings, everyday items, or apparel.

Nowadays, we still willingly use the image of the sun, especially in art and architecture. Something is appealing in this figure. Centric circle shape with rays around them somehow reminds me of the wheel of life with rays as special moments.

Maybe that is why the pie chart and all variations of pie charts are so popular and like among people. The father of the most known data visualizations is William Playfair. He invented a pie chart in 1801, and it is still commonly used to depict data.

My personal relationship with a pie chart is …. complicated. I do not use them often in a business environment. It is hard to present accurate data on a pie chart, especially with a good number of categories. When it comes to present information for making decisions it is better to go for more readable visualizations like bar charts (check my post: “PIES ARE FOR EATING NOT FOR DISPLAYING DATA”).

However, a different story is with data journalism, when the purpose is to entertain, or inform the audience. In such case, I would give green light to anybody, who would like to present any complicated data on any variation of a circle chart like a sunburst, radial chart, or spiral chart.

Those charts give you an opportunity to present complex hierarchical information on one chart, so even though there are maybe not idealistically readable, they are still concentrated within one visualization, which is an advantage for the audience. Do not forget that data journalism has a different purpose. The main goal is to pull readers into the story. Surprisingly, more complex visualizations with a huge number of details, colors and shapes can be a better agent than simple one to achieve that mission. It is because readers must spend more time decoding that visualization and retrieve information from it. Another aspect that increases the involvement of readers is chart interactivity. Of course, that case can be applied only on website media.

EXAMPLES

Below infographics are good examples of the complexity vs. the reader engagement. It is hard to understand them at glance. You need to hang your eyes for a longer time and go deeper to acknowledge these images.

The huge advantage is adding other layers or rings to the image. Thanks to that technique additional data are introduced into a chart and we can interpret or read information from different angles or levels. Looking on the same image with several layers of information helps us to find interesting patterns and observation. Would be much harder to achieve that effect when having separate charts.

Global statistics

Our Mother Earth is round at it has a connotation with a round object like a circle. Why not use it to strengthen the message. The chart is combined with several charts placed on circle x-axis: life expectancy and average hours of sunshine is a bar chart. Life satisfaction is a heatmap.

https://www.designboom.com/design/sunshine-and-happiness-infographic/
https://www.visualcapitalist.com/visualizing-all-of-earths-satellites/

Time

The time in western culture is perceived as linear from years perspective. When we present years the line chart or bar chart would be our first choice. However, when it comes to the elements of one year, we perceive them as a cycle. What I definitely admire in circle charts is the possibility to present any periodical phenomenon connected with time:

  • Seasons: Summer, Autumn, Winter, Spring
  • Months
  • Weeks
  • Hours
  • Minutes
https://www.digitalartsonline.co.uk/features/graphic-design/award-winning-infographic-designer-nadieh-bremer-on-how-create-powerful-data-visualisations/

Hierarchical information

Presenting hierarchical data is challenging. However, sunburst charts can handle that. Sunburst charts consist of rings that represent a separate level of hierarchy. This visualization gives us an opportunity to present very complex information in one view.

Note that hierarchical information can be presented as qualitative or quantitative.

The below example presents types of cheese categorize by type of milk and their hardness. This information is qualitative. Another type of visualization that we could use would be a treemap. However, a treemap does not look such good as a circle chart.

https://stackoverflow.com/questions/17069436/hierarchical-multilevel-pie-chart

DOS & DONTS

  • Use colours to catch the attention but remember to choose them in accordance with best practices for colour blindness disabilities. Studies show that around 10% of people population have some disabilities in colours distinguish.
  • Always provide the legend. The legend should explain the meaning of colours, shape, sizes and even positions of objects on your visualization.
  • Add short text on visualisation. If there are points that should be emphasis place additional text with an explanation nearby them. The well-balanced text provides context for a particular point.
  • Plan the objects’ size with available space in mind and readability aspect.
  • Do not use too small fonts.
  • Do not use decorative fonts as they are not readable.
  • Remember about the title and short description of the data visualization.
  • Leave whitespace around the visualization to not clutter the page.

How to speed up information decoding by simple data visualization tricks – the story of one chart.

How many times have you struggled to quickly understand what a chart is presenting? It is something that I often experience in media when reading articles or watch some statistics on TV. Sometimes is extremely hard for me to make sense of what I see, just because I am not the subject matter expert and those data at a glance do not seem familiar. And let face it, I am a data person. What must feel ordinary people, who do not work with data on a daily basis and are not highly data literate?

This post is inspired by data visualisations in the article that I have read recently about the employment situation in the UK. You can find the link to the paper at the bottom of the post.

We are going to focus on three easy to introduce improvements to make any chart more readable, impactful, and thoughtful:

  • Additional Axis labelling
  • Annotation
  • Preattentive Attributes                

As an example, we will improve the below chart that presents changes over years of staff availability index.

Additional Axis Labelling

I am not familiar with the staff availability index. From the title and footer of the chart, I understand that the higher, the better. However, that information could be served on the plate. Based on my experience, I can see an easy fix for such a case that speed up the cognitive work of my brain. Most of the time, when some charts are presented, they present some changes over time or comparisons between two or more phenomena. 

In this case, adding small arrows to the Y-axis and additional words describing axis directions give much more sense to the chart and improve the audience experience. Now the chart presents not only changes over time but informs the expected direction of change.

Annotation

There is a common myth that “Data speaks for itself”. No data can speak because it does not have a tongue. The responsibility of proper understanding of the message lies on the messenger side.  Another quick win is adding more text to the chart itself. Additional description or insight help people to process information more effectively and, thanks to visual presentation, make it easier to remember. 

I have added a sentence from the article next to the point that I have wanted to emphasise. The rich text pays attention to the audience eyes, and the soft grey line directs to the specific point on the chart.

Preattentive attributes

Each object on Earth has properties like shape, colour, size, position. This is what we notice without using conscious effort, and because we do not involve too much conscious effort, we must take advantage of it to decoding information faster. Thanks to them, we can guide the audience eyes through our data visualisation and point them exactly where we want.

Introducing a small red dot is a true game-changer for presenting information on the below chart. We can get this effect by taking off the line chart colour and add to the chart another object with a different shape (circle), size (the circle is significantly thicker than the line), and by adding contrasting colour (the red one). At the final stage, let us analyse our eyes movement. First of all, our eyes start looking at the chart with the title (that is why do not forget about titles! Never!). Then they go straight to the red dot. Just next to the red dot is an insight that explains that point.  Next, they track the line chart and finally look at additional Y-axis labelling. Now, our brain, after collecting all this information, can process them and make sense of those data.

I would recommend those three easy to remember and use tricks to uplift any data visualisation that will improve your audience experience.

The link to the article:

https://www.theguardian.com/business/2021/jul/08/uk-employers-struggle-with-worst-labour-shortage-since-1997?CMP=Share_AndroidApp_Other

Time orientation

Time orientation is crucial for the modern world to understand events and draw the correct conclusions.

The pre-industrial culture had not been so tided to time, and most often people perceived time in cycles as day-cycle or season-cycle. However, industrialization forced on us to create precise time systems and changed circularity to the linear phenomenon.

Currently, the majority of people live within time, and this time has for most of us one orientation from left to right and can not be reversible. It is one of human heuristics – mental shortcut, which helps us understand the world.

The example

Data visualizations best practices tell us to display time on the x-axis with left-right orientation (most of the culture except, e.g. Middle Eastern) and do not play with it especially when charts are going to be short displayed. In the end of August in Polish Public TV, a chart for unemployment rates was presented (see image below) with all possible misleading characteristics. I can not tell if it was intentional or not and politics are not the topic of this post, but let’s have a closer look at how this chart is designed and why it is designed wrong.

I have mentioned above that the human mind craves for mental shortcuts.  A quite possible scenario, in this case, can be that receiver reads only the first label for first bar from the left side on the x-axis and understands and remembers that on x-axis there are months of 2020 start from July (Lipiec 2020). The automated interpretation would be that two next bars represent data for two upcoming months, so August 2020 and September 2020. Of course, someone can raise a question in here “We don’t have data for September yet”, but my question is what a level of general data literacy and competency within society is? I am going even further and asking is it ethical to show data visualization for short time without a proper explanation of the graph? But it is a topic for another post. Going back to our example, the conclusion which can be seen is that the unemployment rate has decreased. Where is totally opposite.

However, let’s put ourselves in devil’s advocate shoes and consider, can we approach creatively presenting timeline or not? As I mentioned above, human eyes are used to interpret the timeline from left to right side. Due to that, it is good to keep that order. Sometimes we have a temptation to change it because for example, we would like to compare year over year change and we use last year data as a benchmark. However, that way of presenting data will not be intuitive for receivers. We must be very careful, when we are dealing with data associated with time.

How to fix it?

So how we can fix this visualisation?

First of all, let’s break years into two separate columns and give the time a proper order. Adding columns with years, we clearly indicate that we are dealing in here with two different time stamps. A title or a subtitle itself can help us emphasise that we are presenting a comparison between time points(July 2019 to July – June 2020), so don’t hesitate to include it. Also, I decluttered visualisation by removing background colour and 3d effects, which helps receivers focus only on data. To highlight the most current bar, I changed colour to orange.

All those changes enabled to present data story professionally and properly. Apart from all aesthetic aspects, data visualisation designers need to remember about ethics. The same as in other professions, data visualisation designers have their code of conduct.