Visualize to persuade and inspire action

If you really spend time with the data, it pays off. You begin to clearly see the wonderful facts that are the information you need. You understand interesting things you never knew or noticed before. And this, I like to think,is one of the most wonderful gifts you receive in the art of data visualization: you get to enjoy the process of discovery and learning.

Training your data skills is very important. You can't come up with information if you haven't learned to work your way through the data first. What interests me even more is how to persuade people to take action based on the information that is present in the data. Knowing the information isn't enough; it is what you do with this information that matters. I want to visualize so that people don’t just see information, but also the actions, opportunities, and directions implicit in it. And it really takes time to train the eye (and develop the data skills) to see that in data.

Let me explain. Take a look at this chart from World Bank:

Visualize to persuade and inspire action

When I look at it, I see a powerful call to action. Do you see it?

Let's look closer. On the one side, we have Per Capita GDP (PPP based); on the other side, we have Price Level Index (PLI). The size of the bubble represents the real expenditures, that basically tell us about the size of the economy of the country.

When I ask people what they see in this chart, they say that they see a country-based comparison spanning 3 scales. "The US has higher Per Capita GDP than China" they say, or something like that. They see the information that's in the chart.

Here is the less obvious story, and the one with a call to action: one single factor influences how much an individual has to spend on themselves and their family, and the economic opportunities they have. This one factor is their geographical location.

Here is what I would see when looking at this chart: if I could change one thing, my geographical location, by moving to another country, I could increase my real income and economic opportunities.

You can argue that this chart needs to be improved to tell this story – and I would agree. But that's exactly the point. When you work through the data to design a visualization, you have a choice: you can present information, or you can tell a story that results in action. And it's your choice. You can take the information you see and transform it into a powerful data visualization that will get people thinking – and hopefully acting too.

The task of putting a couple of hundred bubbles onto a 3-dimensional scale shows just how little you need to do to make the story hidden behind the information come forward. You can set up a very clear storyline, that helps people focus.

How to create data visualization that persuade and inspire action

Representing data in a visual format is about seeing and envisioning. The simple elements, like bars, lines and circles, should guide the eye. There should be nothing there to allow the viewer to get stuck, or misdirected by their own biases. The story flows and holds together. There is nothing unnecessary.

You should try to see differently, and deeper than the facts, because facts aren't as important as what they add up to mean, and where they lead.

It takes time to learn to see a call to action in the data, but there is no secret to how it happens. You just stare at it, and see what's there, and what's possible. It is important to give yourself time. It is also important to show your initial work or sketches, as you develop the skill of presenting data visualizations, to a few users. It is a great joy to see how they figure it out, and what they think. Early feedback can be an inspiration for better work.

You will need to toggle back and forth between the context and the visuals generated from hard data. There are two factors in this process. One is related to the way we absorb visual information. We prefer orderly sets of simple marks on the page. We like to see patterns. We like to find relationships. We like to see relative perfection in terms of composition and color. The other is related to the data. Data comes uneven, inconsistent, unrelated, conflicting, large and ambiguous. The visualization is a delicate and elegant compromise between the limited ability of people to comprehend, and their requirement for everything to be perfect and rational, and the data, which is imperfect. And it is this constant tension that makes our work interesting.

A good visualization guides viewers through a number of important experiences. They should learn what the visualization is about and what the scope is. They should be able to evaluate all the factors involved and drill through to find any additional information that is there, with the assurance that your data is reliable. They need to understand the main value of the visualization, and apply reasoning to interpret it and commit to action. And if all of that is in place, they will love your visualization, because it has guided them to a clear goal.

Check out this visualization by Mike Rostock, Shan Carter and Archie Tse.

Visualize to persuade and inspire action

Their visualization drives the viewer to make decisions and act accordingly. It is simple to use, and easy to get around – yet it is based on a diverse dataset of various pieces of information. It allows flexibility for each individual viewer to come to their own conclusion within the scope the authors have set up.

Do you know of a visualization that drives people to take action? Share it in comments.

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