Making Sense of Data Visualization

data visualization for big dataIf you have been paying attention to all the latest marketing research buzz, you know that Data Visualization is a hot topic. I recently attended an SSI workshop where they reviewed some of their research on data visualization. (This research was also presented as a GreenBook webinar.) But before we get into that, what exactly is data visualization?

According to SAS Institute, data visualization is “the presentation of data in a pictorial or graphical format.” So, what’s new about that? Marketing researchers have been creating pictures and graphs to help their clients better and more easily understand research results for decades. Why is data visualization such a big deal now?

One reason is Big Data. As companies can access and examine more data, the presentation of these data in accessible communications formats becomes paramount. Another reason is simply that we have more and better tools available to help us cost-effectively present data pictorially and graphically. And finally, our time-pressed clients appreciate brevity, and prefer pictures over words. Also, one impact of the penetration of digital communications is, perhaps, unfortunately, a disinclination to read text. If you want to communicate today, you have to do it visually.

But how far do we need to go? SSI presented the results of an April 2014 experiment they conducted on data visualization. They presented the same information in three formats: as text bullet points, as charts and graphs, and as an infographic. The respondents were asked to play the role of the Human Resources manager, and evaluate which data presentation they preferred. The textual bullet-point document fared the worst, with both the charts and graphs document and the infographic being preferred to text. The charts and graphs summary was deemed easiest to read. Respondents complained that it was difficult to easily and quickly find the numbers needed in the infographic. So, in this experiment, the traditional charts and graphs documentation for marketing research performed the best.

But the question is not “which format should I use?” Rather, data visualization needs to be approached with each specific audience, or client, in mind.  The ultimate question is “which format will communicate best to my audience?” A younger audience may prefer an infographic, a group of senior executives may prefer a succinct set of bullet points, a group of engineers may prefer data tables, and the marketing department may want charts and graphs.  Preferences will change and adapt to the audience, the context, and the timing.

At this point, we cannot blindly say there is only one right answer to data visualization. It depends on the nature and amount of information you are communicating, the type of action you need to inspire, and the needs and preferences of your audience. So take care when applying data visualization to your research results and you will be sure to hit the right note with your audience.

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