Saturday, December 10, 2011

Ain't She Sweet

A couple of months ago, I was working with some people who claimed to know nothing about data analysis. After we'd constructed the most godawful and useless table imaginable (they insisted that people would want it), their next step was for colour to be added. That's fine---I don't have anything against using colour in a purposeful way for communication. But that's not what they wanted. Their goal was to make the table "pretty." Not in a design-centered way. Just a "Let's whore it up and send it out on the street!" way.

I attended a conference this week in which data had a starring role. I stopped by to talk to a vendor about their product. We'll disregard, for the moment, the blatant FERPA violations with the actual student data they were so proudly displaying, and get to the moment where they were explaining the visualizations generated by the software. The "stoplight" effect (red, yellow, green) is very popular in education for sorting students, but is not so friendly for users with vision issues. I asked them about colour choice. And what did the salesmen say? "It's pretty."

At this same conference, several districts proudly showed off their data dashboards or Excel add-ins. The fact is, there is a lot of very exciting and in-depth work being done with all kinds of school data. I was energized by what I saw, except for one thing: sloppy and ineffectual data displays. I get that the numbers and analysis are the focus. But to get to the end of all the hard work with ginormous data sets and not pay attention to the output was like having sex without the big finish (or, more likely, a premature one): very unsatisfying and frustrating as a participant.

I understand that how easy it is to be blind to errors. I also know that once you've applied blood, sweat, and tears just to make your Excel spreadsheet to work that the last thing you want to do is fight with the output. But take the time, educators, to respect your data and audience. Yes, it's okay to want something "pretty," but that is not enough. Use your lines, colours, graph choice, layout, and text to create powerful ways to communicate. If you're not sure what looks good, ask for feedback. Collect samples of visualizations that you like and use those for inspiration. Read articles and find resources on using colour and line as a fine tool instead of a blunt instrument. Now get back in there and try it again.


  1. Love the sex analogy...

    Wanting to make something pretty just for prettiness sake is like making 3D pie charts: clear signs of low data visualization skills.

    Each and every object and object properties (color) must have an explicit purpose. "I'm using these colors because..."

    Inspirational samples can help finding a style, but they cannot replace some basic knowledge about how human perception works and other data visualization principles. In the long term, the "why" is much more useful than the "how".

  2. Agreed. It seems like this should be a very simple concept to understand, but for some reason, it doesn't appear to be the norm.

    It is as if there are stages of understanding---similar to ppt. People new to ppt go crazy with transitions and colours and every bell and whistle the program has. But after awhile, they settle down and think a bit more carefully about their slides.

    Maybe the people I work with are just going through growing pains in terms of Excel and other data tools.