The Case for Interactive Data Visualizations

Why it's important to move beyond static dataviz.

The human visual system is a pattern seeker or enormous power and subtlety. The eye and the visual cortex of the brain form a massive parallel processor that provides the highest bandwidth channel into human cognitive centers. At higher levels of processing, perception and cognition are closely interrelated, which is why the words understanding and seeing are synonymous.

So writes Colin Ware in his in his classic book Information Visualization: Perception for Design. We humans have always processed information in different ways. Many neurologists, academics, and researchers have proven what most of us intuitively have known for a long time: data visualization matters. In other words, there is something very powerful about how we see information in graphical formats. But don’t think for a minute that all data visualizations are created equal.

Getting Interactive

All data visualizations are not created equal.

Our brains are wired to process information faster and better if it’s represented a visual manner. As I write in The Visual Organization, though, one-time, static data visualizations can only get us so far. Even dashboards replete with KPIs and pre-configured charts don’t lend themselves to true data discovery. (For more here, see The Case for Data Discovery.)

Perhaps my favorite example of an interactive dataviz is OrgOrgChart, a fascinating visual representation of employee movement at Autodesk over a four-year period:

I’ve written tens of thousands of reports for my clients over the years, many of which addressed employee movement. It wasn’t too hard to query a relational database and present detailed and summary statistics for hires, transfers, leaves of absence, and terminations. I became proficient at building reports to meet my clients’ specifications–and telling them when the organization’s new system stored data in such a way that we’d have to write different reports.

Despite my reporting chops, though, nary one could even remotely do what OrgOrgChart does. No summary table could let users see trends so vividly and ask penetrating questions. Beyond that, OrgOrgChart provides the ability to stop, rewind, fast forward, pause, and drill down. As a result, Autodesk employees can ask better questions of their data and, at least in theory, make better business decisions.

Simon Says

Now, a fancy, interactive dataviz does not obviate the need for standard reports, KPIs, and additional queries. They should be considered complements, not substitutes. In this era of Big Data, data-exploration tools will become increasingly important clubs in the bag. Get used to using them.

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