creating a visual story: questions to ask

One observation made to me after a recent workshop was that, beyond data visualization, the class was useful for drawing attention to an important part of the analytical process that is sometimes skipped: what are we trying to say with what we show?

Often, it seems, people want data. Sometimes, this desire is in absence of a specific purpose. But part of our job as an analyst (and if you are reading this and aren't an analyst by title, I encourage you to put on your analyst hat, which, if you ever touch data you have somewhere in your closet) is to help people to understand why they want data, to uncover what it is that the data can help us understand to drive some sort of action. Within the context of communicating to an audience, my personal belief is that showing data in absence of a specific purpose and call to action is lazy (I'm being intentionally provocative here) and that showing no data is better than showing data that hasn't been well thought through.

In terms of thinking things through, I was recently asked for a list of questions to use when forming a visual story with data, so I've taken a stab at that here:

  • Who is your audience?
  • What do you want your audience to know/do? Why should they care? What's in it from them?
  • What data is accessible to you that will best reinforce this message?
  • What context is essential? Think about this both in terms of words (did something significant happen that needs to be explained?) and in data (is there a comparison point that's important to show?).
  • What is the story you are trying to tell? Does the visual that you've created do this?

The questions above aren't linear - you should find yourself asking repeated versions of these throughout the analytical process: to determine what data to gather, to determine what data to show, to determine how to show it, to determine how to build a story around it.

After you've gone through the process, there is an easy way to tell if you were successful: seek feedback. Often, the most useful feedback will come from someone who is unfamiliar with the information (as we become familiar with our work, we lose the ability to see things that don't make sense to someone less familiar, and any audience is going to be less familiar with our work than we are): find a colleague, a friend, a family member, give them your visual and have them talk you through what they see. There is useful information in where they focus and what questions they ask that will help direct you as you iterate and refine your visual story.

Are there other questions you find yourself asking when you create your data visuals or when you are interpreting those made by others?