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The Benefits and Habits of a Data Visualisation Design Process
For people who are new to learning about data visualisation, one of the most important understandings is that perfect does not exist. There are good and there are bad, but there are no perfect solutions.
To achieve perfection requires immaculate circumstances that are free of pressure or constraint. It needs definitions of what is expected, and why, to be universally clear and free of nuance or uncertainty. That’s just not how things operate.
Data visualisation challenges may not always be necessarily complicated, but they are always complex. So many different pressures exist that can push and pull you in all directions. There will never be just one single possible answer to a problem.
And whilst that can be frustrating, by following a design process to organise your decision-making, it can also be liberating. This is the essence of mastering data visualisation – effective decisions, efficiently made. There are four stages of the data visualisation design process, split into two distinct phases:
The first phase, indicated in pink in the diagram, involves three stages that can be described as the hidden thinking of data visualisation. These stages cover the preparatory work that informs what you are visualising, for whom and, crucially, why. ‘Formulating your brief’ is about planning, defining and initiating your work. ‘Working with data’ concerns activities like collecting, exploring and preparing your data ‘Establishing your editorial thinking’ is about making judgements about what you will show your audience.
The second main phase of the process involves developing your visual thinking. This is all about working towards a design solution, the visual manifestation of all the hidden thinking you have gone through earlier. This fourth stage is concerned with how and concerns carefully constructing your choices across five distinct design layers that make up the anatomy of any visualisation solution, namely, data representation (ie. charts), potential features of interactivity, elements of annotation, colour choices, and composition (layout).
Here are some observations about why it is important to follow a design process:
- Reducing the randomness of your approach: The value of this design process is that it shapes your entry and closing points. How do you start a process? How do you know when you’ve finished? The sheer extent of different things you will have to think about, even with simple projects, can be quite an overwhelming prospect. This approach breaks down key stages into a connected system of thinking that will help progress your work and preserve cohesion between your activities. It incrementally leads you towards developing a solution, with each stage building on the last and informing the next.
- very project is different: Every visualisation challenge presents new opportunities and difficulties. Even if you are just re-producing the same report every month, no two instances of that report will involve the exact same context. Just by having one extra month of data, for example, may expose you to larger values, smaller values, new values, and expired values. Whether you have simple data, or vast amounts of complex data, two hours or two months, the process you follow will always be the same. You should follow the same sequence of thinking regardless of the size, speed and complexity of your challenge. The main difference is that any extremes in the circumstances you face will amplify the stresses at each stage of the process and place greater demands on the need for thorough, effective and timely decision-making.
- Adaptability: The term ‘process’ is significantly different to ‘procedure’. The process outlined above provides a framework for thinking, rather than instructions to learn and follow. A good process should offer adaptability and remove the inflexibility of a defined procedure. In any visualisation project, you may need to respond to revised requirements, additional data that emerges, or a shift in creative direction. A good process cushions the impact of changing circumstances like these. Although the activities presented in this process implies a linear sequence, there will always be need for iteration. There will be occasions when you must revisit decisions or redo activities in a different way, especially if you make mistakes. What is more important in these situations is how gracefully you fail and how quickly you recover.
- Protect experimentation: The process approach I am advocating is not overly systematic and doesn’t compromise on allowing space for experimentation. When there are pressures on time the need to focus and avoid distraction is understandable. Aspiring to reduce wasted effort and improve efficiency is entirely reasonable, but one must still seek out opportunities – in the right circumstances – for imagination to blossom. Few projects will offer lots of scope for complete creative exploration, but when an opportunity presents itself for you to work on a subject that befits creativity, you should embrace it. And don’t forget to enjoy it!
- The first occasion, not the last: Each activity you commence across the distinct stages in the process will likely represent the first occasion you pay attention to these matters, but not the final occasion. Think of the sequencing as being akin to a waterfall slowly building. Take, for instance, the recurring concern about thinking about your audience. You will first encounter the need to define a profile of your anticipated audience’s characteristics during the first stage of the process, ‘Formulating your Brief’. However, the concern about what they know, what they need to know, and how interested they will be will reoccur right through to the end. Issues like this will never fully drop off your radar, indeed they will likely build in number as you progress, but the value of the process means you have a good chance of keeping all these plates spinning for as long as they need to be.
So these are some of the benefits of following a process, but it can be easier said than done to adopt this approach and make it feel comfortable. Here are some of the recommended best-practice habits that are vital for novices or experienced visualisers alike to flourish with their design process.
- Time management: Any creative work quickly swallows up all available time. You get tempted to try things, to explore different ideas, to attempt one final pass at seeking out interesting features of your data. It is easy to get consumed by the stretching demands of the activities across this process. As you then reach a deadline you either sink or swim: for some the pressure of the clock ticking is crippling, especially impacting their creative thinking; others thrive on the adrenaline it stirs, and their focus is sharpened as a result. Regardless of how you respond to looming deadlines, good planning is vital. Time management is the essence of good planning. It keeps a process cohesive and on track. Through experience working on different projects your ability to anticipate how much time to allocate to different activities will improve. That said, each project introduces its own profile of demands, so always find time before you set off to offer some estimation of where your likely commitments will be most required. Don’t forget to factor in time for easily neglected responsibilities, such as supervisor meetings, Zoom calls, research, reading, and general file management.
- Mindsets: Irrespective of the type of visualisation you are working on, your process will involve a mixture of conceptual and practical activities. Sometimes these will be allocated across a team, exploiting the range of talents at different times through the process. On other occasions you will be working alone, and the diversity of these activities will stretch your mind considerably. Sometimes you are thinking, sometimes you are creating; sometimes you need to be creative, sometimes you need to have an eye for detail.
- Thinking: The duties here will be conceptual in nature, requiring imagination and judgment, such as formulating your curiosity, defining your audience’s needs, reasoning your editorial perspectives, and making decisions about viable design choices.
- Doing: These are active duties that engage the brain through more practical undertakings, such as sketching ideas, conducting research, holding discussions with a client, or checking data.
- Making: These are more hands-on constructive duties characterised by using tools for activities like handling data, creating charts, designing presentation features.
- Documenting: It is over-simplistic to claim the pen and paper are the most important tools for visualisers. After all, unless you are producing a hand-drawn work, technical applications will always be more applicable for most of your process. However, pen and paper will prove to be a real ally to help you document thoughts and capture sketches. Do not rely on your memory; if you have a great idea sketch it down. You don’t need great artistry, you just need you to get things out of your head and onto paper, particularly if you are collaborating with others. If you are fortunate to be so fluent with a tool and find it more natural to use that for ‘sketching’ ideas than a pen and paper, fine, if it is the quickest medium to do so. Whether using pen and paper, or a tool like Word or Google Docs, note-taking is a useful habit to develop. Note-taking is a difficult habit to take up but it does prove invaluable, helping you to document important details such as:
- task lists with details of deadlines and precedents;
- information about the sources of data you are using;
- details of complicated calculations or manipulations you have applied to your data;
- a log of any assumptions you have made;
- terminology, abbreviations, acronyms – technical properties of your data that are crucial to its understanding;
- questions and answers you have received or are yet to;
- issues or problems you have experienced or can foresee;
- wish lists of features or ideas you would like to explore;
- sources of inspiration, like websites or magazines you discover;
- ideas you have had or rejected.
- Communication: This is a two-way activity. It is about listening to stakeholders and to your audience: what do they want, what do they expect, what ideas do they have? What knowledge do they have about your subject? Communication is about speaking to others: presenting ideas, updating on progress, seeking feedback, sharing your thoughts about possible solutions, and promoting and selling your work (regardless of the setting, you will need to do this). You cannot avoid the demands of communicating so do not hide behind your laptop – get out there and interact with people who can help or who you can help. Associated with the need for good communication skills is the importance of research. You cannot know everything about your subject, about the meaning of your data, about the relevant and irrelevant qualities it possesses. Data itself can only tell us so much; often it just tells us where interesting things might exist, not what explains why they are interesting. Talk to smart people who know a subject better than you or people who do not know the subject but are just smart.
- Attention to detail: The process you follow embodies the concept of the ‘aggregation of marginal gains’. Even if many of your decisions seem tiny and inconsequential, they deserve your full attention. Like note-taking, the discipline of checking every detail may not be a natural trait for some. However, errors found in your work can be damaging and will certainly undermine your audience’s trust, as you will learn about shortly. I know through experience how one mistake can undermine the integrity of an entire project, even if this feels unfair and disproportionate considering everything that was correct. Start every project with a commitment to eliminate mistakes and learn from the pain when you fail. It is not easy and sometimes, when you are so immersed in your own work and become blind to it, consider seeking others to help you.
- “Kill your darlings”: A consequence of facing so many decisions in visualisation is the need to demonstrate the discipline to not do something. It is easy to fall in love with your potentially-brilliant ideas but, occasionally, these ideas may ultimately just not work out. Even though you will have invested heavily in time and emotional energy, don’t be stubborn. When something is not working, learn to kill it. Otherwise, such preciousness will impede the quality of your work. Being blind to things that are not working, or ignoring constructive feedback from others, will prove destructive.
- Learn: Reflective learning is about looking back over your work, examining the output, and evaluating your approach. What did you do well? What would you do differently? How well did you manage your time? Did you make the best decisions you could, given the constraints that existed? Learn from others. Read how other people undertake their visualisation challenges. Maybe share your own? You will find you truly learn about something when you find the space to write about it and explain it to others. Write up your projects, present your work to others and, in doing so, that will force you to think ‘why did I do what I did?’.