Great data visualization is hard to measure: you can’t prove you have a good chart. Unless you can convince your employer to deploy at least two different formats/layouts and are able to compare results, you can say “this is a good chart” but that’s an act of faith, not an act of science.

It’s True Because It Rhymes

Information visualization experts like to evaluate a chart based on its compliance to some more or less accepted standards (Tufte’s data-ink ratio, for example). That’s like saying “it must be true because it rhymes”: the truth is defined by the language itself, not by the real world. Now, please close the curtains of our ivory tower…

I know, it’s not easy to assess the efficiency and effectiveness of good displays. They look natural and obvious, undeserving of praise and, probably, boring and uninspiring. Compare these charts:

Bubble charts

This is a true story: users wanted to evaluate sales territories, one at a time. Color-coding each bubble (Example A) was pointless, while Example B provided context without distractions. Guess what chart they would choose if they were allowed to… (happy ending: they reluctantly accepted Example B). (A word of advice: if you are looking for a promotion, a kindergarten chart variety always outperforms a “serious” chart.)

If your chart is doing a good job at helping people, no one will actually be aware of the chart’s role at making sense of the data. That’s why it is so hard to find good examples of data visualization using standard charts. If people actually like them, they like them because of their usability and/or interactive features.

When Stephen Few asks the readers “true stories about the benefits of data visualization” that’s almost an admission of impotence.  He should have hundreds if not thousands of good examples to share with us, right? Well, I know there are many examples out there, but I can give you none, sorry. Is data visualization some kind of astrology? I know it works. Why? Because I have faith. (On second thought, he is not asking for good data visualization examples. It really doesn’t matter if you use Tableau or Xcelsius, and that’s a relief.)

Opening the Pandora Box

Ultimately, what makes a good chart is how it resonates with your audience. Assuming that your are not unethically distorting the data, a chart that forces people to act is better than another one that only makes people aware of the subject.

If a single chart can save the world, it will not be a Few’s or Tufte’s 100% compliant chart. It will be a glossy Xcelsius pie chart.

(Wow, that’s depressing…)

If you read this blog that’s a clear sign of intelligence and sophistication 🙂 . Unfortunately, you are not representative of the typical data visualization user and/or producer. The real world loves pie charts and doesn’t understand scatter plots.

Here is my Pandora box: give the audience what it expects and understands, even if that hurts your data visualization soul (OK, give it 90% of what it expects and use the remaining 10% to educate it.)

Cultural Relativism? Not So Fast.

Please don’t misrepresent these arguments. I’m not saying that all charts are born equal. There is a reference point and some misconceptions should be avoided A chart that maximizes insights, removes clutter, uses color wisely and clearly shows the patterns hidden in vast amounts of data, that’s probably a good chart and that’s what you should aim for. And yes, you should avoid pie charts.

If you present some sophisticated charts to your unsophisticated audience you’ll lose it. Relax. Draw a line but don’t forget the candies. You can take a horse to the water, but you can’t make him drink, unless you give him some sugar cubes…