Thursday 23 April 2015

#PeopleAnalytics15 Data visualisation and storytelling

I’m at Tucana HR’s People Analytics conference today.  We had a session from Peter Howes earlier who noted that interpretation and telling a story is just as, if not more important, that the actual analytics he had been describing.  I agree, so I’ve been looking forward to the current session with Cole Nussbaumer, ex Google, on telling stories with data.

Andrew Marritt introduced the session by talking about Stephen Few who presented at one of Peter’s / Infohrm’s conferences I also spoke at some years ago and I saw links to some of his insights in Cole’s session.

We get taught how to tell stories and how to use numbers but not both together.  Doing so requires clarity about the business context, who is the audience and what we want them to do before thinking about how data can help make the appropriate point.

Options include simple text, tables (which interact with our verbal system) and graphs (which support our verbal system which is of course quicker.)  These include line graphs, slope graphs, bar charts, but probably not, as you’ll hopefully know if you’re working in analytics, pie charts.

It helps to remove clutter.  Here we talked about Gestalt principles of visual perception - including proximity, similarity, enclosure, closure, continuity and connection.  The more we take away the more our data stands out.

And to focus people’s attention.  We see stimuli with our eyes and our brains which is where perception takes place.  Eg we know about short and long-term memory but there is also Iconic memory which pays attention to pre-attentive attributes - including orientation, shape, line length, line width, size, curvature, added marks, enclosure, hue, intensity, 2D position, motion.  We can use this to provide a hierarchy of information.

The final need is to tell a story - a plot (what context is essential?), twists (what is interesting about the data and what it shows?) and an ending (what do you want your audience to do?).  This helps us retain information to tell to someone else.  Words have a very important role in helping describe data - annotate it with text.

Cole demonstrated the difference between a real life example of a client graph and how this would be developed using the above principles - simple, but not easy, and very important.

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