Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Visualisation is an analytic technique

I'm working on an article at the moment, as part of a broader series of work on the topic of analysis. That article - which will be published soon, and I'll post a link to it when its available - is about the different techniques we use during our analysis work.

I won't pre-empt the main article, but as I've thought about these techniques I've come to the recognition that data visualisation is an analysis technique. It's a tool that helps us not only make sense of the data, but offers us a way of analysing it as well.

How does that work? We're not really doing anything to the data, just making a diagram or illustration, right?

Well, what we're doing is providing an alternative representation of the data. Let me give you an example: let's say our data is a list of words and the frequency with which they appear in an interview transcript. It looks like a table of word-value pairs, a little like this:

Analysis: 12
technique: 8
well: 6

Now compare that to this:
Wordle: analysis_technique

Suddenly, the data takes on a new dimension. Literally. The significance of those numbers is made more real, more tangible through the visualization. The same is true of graphs, charts, histograms, radial graphs and pie charts: the visualization of the data adds to the narrative and helps expose patterns, grouping and holes that are otherwise ambiguous or completely obscured as a list of numbers.

Visualizations have the added advantage of being a much better tool for communication than a spreadsheet or lists. You can bring them out at a meeting and elicit interest instead of the glazed expression that only a large spreadsheet seems to bring about. And they can be re-used down the track as an illustration for any reports that may be required.

Lastly, they give you something to look at. A good visual is one of those things that brings your data to life, making it stand out (as we saw above) and really start to speak to you. So during those periods when you're soaking in the research data and the progress you've made on the analysis, those visualizations can provide an anchor for your thinking and help you move on to the next stages of the analysis.

So, don't discount the power of a good visualization to do more than just communicate. Remember that it can also be a powerful tool for gaining insights from your data, which is, after all, what analysis is all about.


flashman said...

This resonates strongly with some books by Edward Tufte that I've been reading lately. I just finished reading The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, a thorough exploration of data graphics which resonates well with what you've written here.

Dude's a bit obsessed with making data graphics as 'efficient' as possible, even if they look nothing like the graphics most people know how to read.

Lori Widelitz-Cavallucci said...

After reading your post, I passed this information on to someone grappling with this on a redesign of a site. The difference between the 2 ways you have presented the information is so striking. With the "cloud" there is no need to interpret the data-it provides for a quick analysis of it.

Thank you!

James Breeze said...

Mind mapping rulz, ok. It is so visual, great for communications, ideation and memory.

I talk about using them in the UX on this slideshare presentation.