Data visualization: beautiful Paris?

When I saw Paris for the first time I was like, meh.

Not Paris’ fault. This was the second leg of a trip that started in Prague, and I was still in a process of digesting the city’s overwhelming beauty. After a couple of days, I was able to enjoy Paris, not in full, but in what made it different from Prague. For full disclosure, I prefer a different kind of beauty I find in other places, like, you know, London.

I hope you’re starting to suspect that this has nothing to do with cities and tourist trips. It has everything to do with data visualization and the multiple approaches to it.

I was reading Why visual literacy is essential to good data visualization, an interesting article by Benjamin Cooley (Twitter handle @bendoesdata) where he discusses the difference between visual literacy and data literacy and why it matters. I was calmly nodding along, but then I reached this paragraph, which marks an unexpected turn of events:

Data literacy is an essential starting point. But let’s be real: most people don’t want to look at a page full of bar charts. With more data available than ever before, the world is suffering from insight-fatigue, staring at dashboards day after day of red and green indicators showing positive and negative performance.

It is followed by a stock photo captioned “Just look at this generic business guy. He’s been staring at 3d pie charts and bar graphs all day”. As a generic business user, I recognize myself in this picture as much as a graphic designer would, if it pictured a generic graphic user tired of staring at automated infographics all day.

What’s the cure for the poor generic business user? Color theory, “feelings of certain shapes”, reading patterns of web users. In other words, we need more beauty.

The Invisible – Visible continuum

If using information to support decision-making is how I get my job done, all I want is insights, not pretty pictures (Ben Shneiderman). I don’t understand this notion of “insight-fatigue”, unless it means a more general burn out consequence of badly designed dashboards.

I agree that probably most people don’t want to look at a page full of bar charts. But the answer is not finding something less boring than bar charts. The answer is to create visuals that get out of the way. In other words, make them invisible (that’s what good design is all about, so they say?).

Benjamin mentions a Truth – Beauty continuum. I don’t see it as a continuum, because beauty (aesthetics) is always there, and truth should always be there.

That’s why I would prefer, instead of a Truth – Beauty continuum, an Invisible – Visible continuum. A great dashboard should be invisible. This means removing barriers to getting the insights I need, and that includes the dashboard not calling attention for itself, for good or bad reasons. I don’t care if it is a screen filled with bar charts or some well-chosen xenographics.

Now, I have nothing against a dashboard or an infographic that was designed specifically to be aesthetically pleasing. Designing for the visible side of the spectrum increases attention and engagement, and make the object more memorable. And makes you the cool kid. There are some trade.offs, though. If you search for “insights fatigue” I’m not sure if you’ll find a lot of relevant results, but search for “beauty fatigue” and you’ll get a lot to choose from. My Prague – Paris trip was an obvious case. I also mentioned London to express the idea that beauty can be overwhelming, but the sense of beauty is not universal: a stronger attraction is coupled with stronger rejection.

There are, of course, more earthly matters: beautiful objects tend to be unique, and that means they cost more. Since this is business, I need a cost-benefit analysis: how much this beautiful dashboard will cost me to implement, maintain and update? If it uses non-conventional visuals, it means that users will need extra training. And will they be able to get better insights and faster?

So, I don’t think beauty is the answer. It certainly is one of many possible situation-dependent answers along the the full Invisible-Visible spectrum. And we should humbly recognize that our talents and skill set will not always fit the requirements. That’s OK. Believe me, I know. I’m a generic Excel user.

Photo by Benh LIEU SONG, Wikicommons