This morning, as I was standing in the kitchen making coffee, I realized I had left my glasses on my nightstand. I walked back into the bedroom to retrieve them, and as soon as I stepped into the room, I forgot what I went in there for.
This probably happens to me once a week, and I’m not alone. It partially has to do with the Doorway Effect, a trick our brains pull on us to clear up space in our working memory. We can only hold so many thoughts in our head at one time, and the more we try to hold, the less room we have for making connections and drawing insights.
By walking through a door, we signal to our brain that we are switching contexts. Any information that the brain deems unimportant gets sifted out. You may notice a similar effect happening when you switch between desktops on your computer or walk from your desk to the coffee machine and then into a meeting. The insight you wanted to share with the group probably got lost somewhere around the time you were looking for the creamer.
While we can’t do anything to make it easier to find the creamer or remember to put on our glasses in the morning, we do have a way to reduce context-switching and free up more working memory when looking at business reporting: data visualizations.
The point of data visualization is to surface the most important data so that it’s easily recognizable. We do this by combining the most important data sets, drilling down and calling out pertinent information, and cross-referencing data that would otherwise get lost in a spreadsheet or table. The best data visualizations allow individuals to interact with and discover data that would otherwise be closed off or inaccessible because of its format.
Finding the right business intelligence tool drives greater data literacy within your company. Anyone can slap a data visualization on a dashboard and call it a day, but that only tells part of the story. Effective data visualizations are flexible, highly customizable down to the nitty-gritty details, aesthetically pleasing, and interactive.
To give stakeholders a complete picture of your data, you need stunning data visualizations that provide easy access to the most valuable information, tell a story, and give stakeholders the autonomy to use the analysis for their benefit.
Data visualizations for speed and space
The Doorway Effect calls out a major stumbling block to understanding large amounts of corporate data: we can only hold so many things in our working memory at one time. When we add tasks, flip from page 3 to 56 in a report, or walk from one room to the next, our brains often have to drop an item from memory to complete the new task. We lose a task, file it away, or reduce our grasp on insights. Data visualizations help us condense important data so that we can hold more in our working memory. By reducing an entire table of data into a chart or graph, we actually free up space to think about other things.
Data visualizations literally give our brains space to access insights.
The speed at which we ingest and understand data depends on the format. We understand images much faster than other forms of communication like reading or listening. Our brains are built to understand trends, patterns, and visual information, but not necessarily lots of data points without looking at each individual one.
There’s a lot of cool science around why and how our brains process images faster than words or individual numbers. This is why we’d rather look at headlines and images than read a long article. It’s not necessarily because we’re boring (although that may be true as well) or easily distracted (okay, also true). Our brains process information faster when it’s closely tied to images.
If you want to improve the speed of understanding, data animations take the power of visualization a step further by showing time or growth. Instead of attempting to understand several data points on a timeline, animations can show growth or decline through relative size, color, shape, etc. When data is in motion, we quickly learn about new combinations and connect the old data to the new.
Data visualizations for storytelling
You can use your brain’s natural affinity for images to tell a more compelling story with stunning data visualizations. Remember how your high school English teacher would tell you to “show, don’t tell”? A BI tool that provides access to stunning data visualizations lets anyone—even non-analysts—show beautiful stories with their data. The questions you can answer with data visualizations are endless:
- Why are revenue numbers lower than forecasted this quarter?
- Where are the bottlenecks in our supply chain?
- What advertising changes did customers respond to best?
- When was the best time for our salespeople to make appointments?
- How do we recreate the success of the last quarter?
What’s important, is using the right data visualization. A tool that suggests the right visualization to highlight the most important data points is pertinent to building a cohesive data story. While the person building the dashboard or report may not be an expert on which data visualization to use, they can use the suggestions the BI tool (built by experts!) makes to tell their best story.
When the business intelligence software suggests preset visualizations and best practice options, the data wrangler—analyst or not—can spend less time fiddling around with possible visualizations and more time ensuring that their reports surface the most persuasive information.
Data visualizations for collaborative growth
While reports often try to command the narrative and tell a story with data, dashboards can be used as a home base of collaboration around data, especially if the dashboards include interactive visualizations.
Interactive visualizations give individuals the power to experiment with data. They can drill down to individual KPIs or roll up data sets across departments and years. What could your team achieve if they were able to build forecasts right in their dashboards that react to the changing data environment?
Interactive dashboards bring democracy to your data, which in turn means better collaboration around common data sets, breaking down departmental silos, and a greater chance of catching an otherwise missed opportunity. When every team has access to data, the marketing team gets to look at the sales data through their marketing lens, and engineering can look at the product team’s information through their development lens.
Collaborative growth built around data is the brass ring of the modern innovative business, and few companies can afford to ignore it.
Data visualizations for brand aesthetics
With so many data visualization options out there, it’s not enough to just have reports and dashboards with charts and graphs. You want them to tell a cohesive, beautiful data story that stands out among the competition.
For many companies and agencies, reporting is the main tangible outcome they provide their clients each month. You need high-quality data visualizations that match the quality of your reporting and service. Look for a vendor who provides lots of different visualizations, suggests the best way to present your data, and gives you the freedom to match your data with your branding. Even better, if your reporting partner offers full and dedicated support for every step of the process, you can quickly build aesthetically pleasing and on-brand visualizations and reports that perfectly represent the quality of your data and your company.
Data visualizations in a BI tool help companies reduce their reporting times and bring faster value to internal and external stakeholders. Whether they’re included in reports, dashboards, and analysis, or they stand on their own as embedded analytics, data visualizations are a tangible representation of the quality of your brand. Where you use them is just as important as how you use them. The right data visualization partner improves the speed to insights, gives you a vehicle for storytelling and collaborative growth, and does it all with beautiful visualizations that support the aesthetics of your brand.
About the Author
Tamara Scott is the Research and Content Manager at TechnologyAdvice.com. She writes at the intersection of technology, software, marketing, and customer education.More Content by Tamara Scott