Data visualisation and the power of humour, illustration, and design.

Data can be a funny thing. Particularly when it’s represented in a series of runny noses, showing peak monthly incidence of flu viruses; a steeply inclined pile of hundreds-and-thousands depicting US sugar consumption rates; or a selection of bar charts shaped like peeled bananas, (rather viscerally) illustrating circumcision rates across different countries.

These are a few examples of the work of Mona Chalabi – journalist, illustrator, statistician, and contributing Data Editor at The Guardian, over whom I have been shamelessly fangirling for some time now. As a researcher spending most of my days immersed in analysis and reporting, I’m a bit obsessed with her uniquely impactful approach to data communication: creating hand-drawn and deeply Instagram-able visualisations of big data and various statistics.

Through her work, Chalabi uses numbers and illustration to make powerful statements on issues spanning from the political (wage disparity between white males and Hispanic women, or the variation in press reports on the recent tragedy in Sudan); to the faintly bizarre (trends in the decapitated animals found in New York parks).

Regardless of the subject, however, there are common threads in this form of media that we can pick up in work as analysts and reporters of MR outputs. Data overwhelm is a hot topic, and we’re faced with the constant challenge to deliver a balance of accuracy and detail; with a powerful and memorable message.

What data visualisation artists like Chalabi achieve is focussed strongly on the latter: ensuring the audience leave with feeling, a spark of insight, and an increased likelihood to care about the issue in question (and perhaps an increased likelihood to do something about it). In artist Chris Jordan’s TED Talk, he shares large-canvas creations showing infinite mazes of stacked, non-recyclable plastic cups, and dense clusters of prison uniforms like stacked coins: helping the audience truly feel the concept of ‘a billion’. “If we feel these issues more deeply”, he says, “they matter more to us”.

Their work is less about the minute details of the data itself- and represents a bit of a rebellion against the established norms in data comms: those swathes of detailed bar charts shared in their entirety for transparency, showing each figure to two-decimal places… where data quite often goes to die, as audience engagement nosedives.

It is also a response to the sheer volume of information that can be accessed today: we must think differently about how humans interact with data, ‘bouncing’ from source to source and only spending a few seconds assessing whether or not a visual, article, or graph is worth a closer look.

So, what’s the message for researchers and analysts? Tragically, I don’t think HRW would let me chart up my reports like Mona Chalabi or Chris Jordan- HR would almost certainly object to that many cartoon bum illustrations (no matter how lovingly hand-drawn), and the printing costs for hundreds of A0 canvases would surely add up.

What we can do:

Tell a story. Whilst we cannot sacrifice the detail and requisite certainty in a competitive industry where a few decimal places may represent millions of dollars of revenue, we can work to bring key messages to the surface. And whilst we rarely handle “big” data in the truest sense of the word, we can certainly work harder to effectively bring the scale and scope of the numbers we gather to life. At HRW, we’re in the midst of a concerted effort to make sure each report truly tells a story; leads with the message; and leaves the audience with a consistent, memorable idea – we understand that it’s not always the number, but the feeling that is important in kick-starting action internally.

Play with format. Whilst we’re limited in our ability to go full-Chalabi in our outputs, we can still have fun with reports. HRW are now partnered with film/animation experts Ideal Insight, who create gorgeous summary videos to capture the essence of our research findings in clips as short as ninety seconds. We can help grab stakeholder’s attention from the start- and through the process of distilling insights into these short clips, can also challenge ourselves to agree on what the ‘essence’ of a given report really is (and it is rarely a 90-page onslaught of charts…).

Accept your audience is only human. The ‘bouncing’ we see in how the public interact with media is pervasive beyond online browsing. Internal stakeholders can be ‘bouncers’- pinging from meeting to meeting and tuning in and out of different aspects of brand strategy. Do not underestimate the (very human) tendency to lose interest; miss the point; and rapidly drown in detail. Clarity and conciseness in communication is essential, and this can come from something as simple as the cleanliness and simplicity of debrief layouts. The format of a report should provide a welcoming pull into the engagement with an interpretation of data. To this end, HRW are also partnering with Graphic Designer Chris Bolton to re-design our suite of outputs and provide bespoke deliverables such as patient journey visualisation- to take the polish and utility of our reports to the next level.

We can all ask for more in our approach to data communication in market research. Whilst we’re slightly restricted by the unique focus of our work (sadly limiting the opportunity for visuals of runny noses, hundreds-and-thousands, and bananas), there’s plenty we can do to avoid some common data visualisation pitfalls, and scope to work much harder to put your audience first.

Get in touch to find out more about our reporting approach; our partnership with Ideal Insight and Chris Bolton; and our client training offerings on data visualisation and output creation.


By Cathy Haw

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