Category Archives: Dataviz

The power of metaphors

noun_93083Customer Journey Mapping is, as I tell delegates on my course, just a metaphor.

Then again, the Beatles were “just a band” (at least according to Scroobius Pip).

Metaphors can be incredibly powerful, but also incredibly useful. They help us to understand each other, to reason about things, and to get things done.

To quote the classic Metaphors We Live By:

“…the way we think, what we experience, and what we do every day is very much a matter of metaphor.”

One of the lessons of the book is about the “conduit metaphor” of communication (that our language is a container into which we put meaning for others to extract). This is important because it supports uses of language which don’t make much sense from a purely logical point of view (e.g. the metaphor “more of form is more of content” leads to phrases such as “he is very very very tall”, which we all understand to imply intensification).

The metaphors we use have an impact on what we think and do. What if we choose a different metaphor? In a classic paper, Michael Reddy suggests that a “toolmaker’s paradigm” would be more helpful, underpinning the importance of mutual effort to communicate ideas effectively. As he says in the paper:

“Human communication will almost always go astray unless real energy is expended” 

These metaphors are normally applied to language, but a similar approach could be taken to visual communication. In a fascinating post, Robert Kosara critiques the “Encoding-Decoding” paradigm for data visualisation.

It’s fairly clear that just like the useful, but flawed, conduit metaphor for language, there may be more than one metaphor for how visual communication works. Kosara explains how people actually read visualisations:

“What do we decode? We like to assume that decoding just reverses the encoding: we read the values from the visualization. But not only don’t we do that, we do many other things that are surprisingly poorly understood.”

In other words, the conduit metaphor for dataviz tends to overlook the active role of the person reading it. Studying how people actually use visualisations may help us to build a better metaphor.

Storytelling and visual communication is not a one-way act – we need a metaphor to reflect the active role of our audiences. 

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Hans Rosling: a great data storyteller

gapminderI was sad to hear, yesterday, that Hans Rosling had passed away.

For anyone interested in telling stories with data, he was an inspiration and an example.

His videos use a lively combination of data, innovative visualisation, and passionate argument. This is one of my favourites: 200 years that changed the world.

The mission he, Ola, and Anna set themselves at Gapminder was to combat ignorance with data; to discover where knowledge gaps exist, and to attack them with fact. He tended to underestimate the importance of his own charm and storytelling skill in engaging the audience not just with the data, but with its significance.

In a world in which news feels increasingly negative, dominated by assertion and prejudice over fact, Hans Rosling was a tremendous force for good. He made us see and acknowledge the progress that has been and is being made.

We could all do with being a bit more like Hans Rosling.


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Attention: getting it, keeping it, using it

One of the excellent speakers at the MRS “Best of Impact” event yesterday was a Creative Director specialising in data visualisation and infographics.

Naturally my ears pricked up—I’m always open to stealing ideas.

As well as being a very engaging talker, Tobias Sturt was really clear on a number of important principles for infographic design based on how our brains work:

  • Symbolic processing (e.g. icons) is quicker than verbal processing, but sometimes it’s less clear.
  • Recall is influenced by colour, faces, novel chart types, quirky images, etc.

But information design is not just about effective communication. It’s also about getting, and keeping, attention. This is a crucial role for what some characterise as graphic “decoration”. “Beauty” might be a better word. It’s something that David McCandless excels at, and Stephen Few objects to.

Those of us with important customer stories to tell have learned (the hard way) that getting attention is just as important as communicating facts.

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Telling the story with data


This is a diagram from my course about data presentation and infographics.

I use it as a starting point to discuss the skills you need to do the job well, summarised as “telling a compelling story with integrity”.

The idea of the diagram is that too much or too little of any of the three axes tends to be a bad thing.

For instance, too heavy on the “statistician” axis might mean that your charts are accurate and robust, but impenetrable to many people. Too light on the same axis, and you might be committing basic analytical mistakes (perhaps ignoring random measurement error).

It’s a rare person who embodies all of those skills to a truly expert level, which is one reason the best infographics often involve a team of people.


Finding your audience

It isn’t necessarily a case of shooting for the middle of the triangle. There’s a zone of acceptable variation around the middle in which competent and engaging data storytelling happens.

What’s appropriate for a scientific publication is not appropriate for your board, or for frontline staff. It’s all about getting the balance right for your audience.

Obvious? Yes, but it’s worth thinking about what it means in practice. Which “rules” of data storytelling are unbreakable, and which need to be tailored according to your audience?


How much do we know about what works?

Stephen Few takes a dim view of infographics which he sees as prioritising shallow gimmicks over effective visual communication. David McCandless has been on the receiving end of severe critiques.

He also points out that more work needs to be done to test which graphic forms are most effective, rather than relying on opinion. I agree – we can’t begin to pretend we’re working in a serious field until we approach these questions scientifically.

Robert Kosara has published interesting work showing that pie charts, much derided by experts, are more effective than we thought.

But is communication our only aim? Not always.


Telling the story

The science of which data graphics work most effectively is only part of the equation. The best graphic in the world is wasted if no one looks at it.

Let’s go back to the idea of storytelling.

What makes a story? Dave Trott, in one of his excellent blog posts, quotes Steven Pressfield’s simple version. A story consists of Hook, Build, and Payoff.

If we apply that to data storytelling I think it makes it easier for us to choose our place in the triangle.

  • Hook: we need to capture the attention of our audience, with something relevant and/or fascinating. This is where McCandless excels.
  • Build: there should be enough depth to reward engagement with the data.
  • Payoff: there’s got to be a reason for looking. What am I going to do differently as a result of spending time with this data?





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