Dataviz, Design, and the Smaller Screen

With less real estate, simplicity has never been more important.
Nov | 9 | 2014

Nov | 9 | 2014


In a world of Big Data, data visualization serves as an indispensable tool. Along with human judgment, it is perhaps the most valuable means of comprehension. Generally speaking, we understand data presented in a visual format much faster and better than when it’s presented in a raw form. That doesn’t mean, though, that all data visualizations are good ones. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth.

Consider this one: Is social segregation rising across English universities?

Different Dimensions Require Different Design

The need for intelligent design has become far more pronounced in the last five years. Back in 1998, mobility as we know it simply didn’t exist. We used to look at information either on fairly large monitors or on 8″ x 11″ paper. We could effectively build dashboards, reports, and data visualizations with a “one size fits all” mentality.

Today screen real estate is often a fraction of its former self.

Not today.

PC sales have been consistently declining with no end in sight. The number and types of different devices has exploded—whether owned by employees (BYOD) or provisioned by central IT departments. Screen real estate is often a fraction of its former self, and this has major ramifications for dataviz design.

Forget monstrosities like the one above. Tiny graphics frustrate users on tablets and mobile devices. Forget Big Data; they can’t even see the small stuff. They lead to user errors and inhibit data discovery. Imagine trying to touch an icon or data point but consistently hitting the wrong one because it’s smaller than your even your pinky finger.

Simon Says

Mobility has forced many organizations have had to either redesign existing data visualizations or build new ones from scratch. Many others have pretended that the world hasn’t changed—and suffered for it.

It’s essential to remember the unique design and presentation challenges posed by smaller screens. Just because a dataviz looks great on a 22-inch monitor doesn’t mean that it will represent well on a smartphone or tablet. Don’t expect a confusing, ugly, or microscopic data visualization to yield better decisions.


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