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Battling Bad Design to Make Great Data Shine

18.02.2021

The anniversary of the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in the UK is almost upon us: a full year of curves, charts, and hastily constructed government visuals to try and communicate massive quantities of new an evolving data. It was therefore timely for Francesca Cooper (Senior Research Executive) to attend a day long virtual workshop led by Government Profession Development, on the subject of “Producing Effective Data Visualisation”. This is a particular area of interest for Francesca, who shares her learnings, and four powerful key principles, below…

Data visualisation can be used as quite a broad term, meaning it can often lose impact- despite being so significant to how we communicate and navigate important facts across all walks of life. Taking it right to the root, data visualisation is the visual representation and presentation of data to facilitate understanding. Why is this so important? The way in which we present data can have a significant impact on the messages and learnings that the audience take away. In its worst form, ineffective data visualisation can lead to misleading information or misleading patterns through poor design, insufficient display of data and concealing or confusing uncertainty in the data.

As researchers, we deal with so much high quality and interesting information that it can sometimes be difficult to strike the right balance between capturing all the important detail in our outputs, and information overload. As Edward Tufte, a pioneer in data visualisation, describes it “There is no such thing as information overload. There is only bad design” – a law that we live by at HRW, and constantly challenge ourselves to improve upon.

Data visualisation, alongside high-quality data of course, is at the forefront of enabling us to communicate key insights- and it is increasingly important to put focus on making data more accessible so that actionable information can be illuminated amongst the weeds of the data. And while we consider the crucial impact of data visualisation from a market research perspective, it should also in turn be a high priority consideration for our clients when optimising how to communicate important messages and data to physicians and patients.

When done right, a visualisation should tell a clear story which is simple to digest and reflective of the true patterns of the data, while also containing as much relevant information as possible through the use of visual channels which help to further explain the story. External cognition tells us that visual reasoning is faster and more reliable than mental reasoning meaning we should strive to better use our eyes’ ability to summarise information whilst also retaining the details.

The workshop was structured around four main stages of the data visualisation design process to improve the way that we work with our data:

  1. Formulating the brief – from the very beginning you must understand who your audience is, what they need to know and how you are going to communicate with them as this is the foundation on which your visualisation should be built.
  2. Work with the data – ensuring quality of your data, understanding any data gaps and performing any data prep is the essential next step to ensure your visualisation is robust and accurate. Then scrutinising which chart types are most suitable for the types of data you wish to include, baring in mind that less is often more.
  3. Establish editorial thinking – once you’ve decided on the right chart and best way to represent the data, it is important to view your visualisation critically, with the aim to systematically reduce clutter and focus the eye on the key insights
  4. Develop the design solution – when finally building the visual, question yourself on what you are trying to demonstrate and how easy it is to extract that information from what you have produced. It is always best practice to think about what an alternative solution may be as the first thing that comes to mind may not be the most effective.

I certainly learned a lot from the session which has been a great chance to reflect on the Information is Beautiful workshop I attended last year (click here to see the blog post). As you can tell I am passionate about data visualisation and since joining HRW I have seen our attention to the quality of our outputs strengthen exponentially as we continue to educate ourselves, from collaboration with our in-house graphic designer, our story-lined approach to debrief writing and developing video reports with our sister company – Ideal Insight. We are one step further on our journey to optimise how data visualisation can access reality!

By Francesca Cooper

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