Before data visualization, reams of data were compiled monthly for key executives in the form of “blue books” which organized and presented statistics, metrics and other information in lists and tables. Information in this format was difficult to access and interpret.
Executive Information Systems augmented the blue books with higher accuracy and more useable information graphically presented in an up-to-date dashboard rather than lists and tables. But these systems were costly, often requiring IS staff for their implementation and support. Recently, innovations in desktop and cloud applications have enabled users with modest skills to access and create meaningful reports and presentations due to these new data visualization software tools.
This article shares best practices and new trends in data visualization techniques, while also discussing key criteria for choosing the right visual software.
Data visualization software will improve the content, quality and impact of your reports, and presentations created using data visualization tools will impress your customers, colleagues and partners.
Best practices and new trends in data visualization
Behind the scenes, you are able to access databases, spreadsheets, and applications to craft visually meaningful representations of that data. How do you ensure that the information is actually received as intended? Experts and experience advise us:
- Know your audience’s comfort level with new, visual technologies and scale the visuals you use accordingly.
- Optimize the visuals for specific content – e.g. bar charts for comparisons; pie or waterfall charts for displaying composition; timelines for events or related developments; infographics for complex relationships based on interactions or reactions revealing trends, patterns, outliers, clusters.
- Keep formatting simple and consistent throughout the presentation or document. Be mindful of unnecessary text, illustrations or ornamentations such as drop shadows, gradients, and 3D effects, which only make the visual harder to follow.
- Use colors to add meaning or draw the eye quickly to specific areas of interest.
- Organize data in a logical, intuitive way to avoid misinterpretation. Categories displayed sequentially, alphabetically or by value will guide readers through the visual and help them process the data faster.
- Prompt others’ participation with interactive maps, allowing valuable data to be recorded.
- Employ the variety of new and powerful data visualization tools to create informative, lasting presentations.
Choosing the best data visualization tools
A quick search of “data visualization software” yields thousands of results, and sorting through them can become overwhelming. As there’s no one-size-fits-all solution, professionals can use a few key criteria to quickly determine what visual tool would fit them or their organization best.
1. Skill level needed
Many data visualization programs may have astounding capabilities, but they can take years to master, some even requiring computer programming skills. When evaluating such tools, it is important to consider the users’ skillsets first. In most cases, a simpler tool, with fewer features but an intuitive interface, will provide far better results than complicated software that no one fully understands.
2. Desktop vs. web-based
Web tools are easily accessible from anywhere but may lack in functionalities and data storage capabilities, while desktop versions are usually richer in features, but they can be limited by the hardware they are run on. In the case of desktop apps, it is important to check whether they operate on Mac or Windows systems, or if they require Java.
3. Data import capabilities
Nothing kills the momentum like having to type in rows after rows of data for hours only to create a graphic. The ability to connect to and import information from other sources is key in data visualization.
4. Customization capabilities
Out-of-the-box visuals don’t always provide the best overview of the data. Some data visualization tools allow users to fully personalize the look and feel of their charts and graphs. While this is a big plus, professionals might want to make sure that enhanced customization doesn’t come at the cost of usability.
5. General-use vs. industry-specific
Some tools are designed to serve multiple purposes and are able to create a large variety of visuals, while others may be more specialized for a specific industry, role, or line of business. Professionals will need to decide if they’d prefer the adaptability of a general-use tool or the personalized approach of an industry-specific app.
For instance, project managers and planners will rarely use – if ever – all the graphs, charts and maps provided by multi-purpose software. Instead, they may resonate much better with a simple, tailored tool that helps them quickly generate timelines and Gantt charts to present proposals, plans or reports in a clear, appealing manner.
Simple tools to help visualize plans or events
Professionals who need to present a series of tasks or activities in a visual way can use lightweight timeline and Gantt chart makers such as the Office Timeline PowerPoint add-in or its online equivalent. The two data visualization tools were designed to be simple and intuitive so that users can get started right away, without having to learn intricate functions. Both apps can import their data from other sources and instantly turn it into a meaningful timeline, which can then be fully customized and updated easily.
- Office Timeline Add-in is a feature-rich desktop tool optimized for Windows systems. It plugs into PowerPoint and allows users to build, revise and share their visuals right from within the familiar presentation tool. Try the Pro+ Edition for free.
- Office Timeline Online is a flexible online data visualization tool that works on any operating system, including Mac. It enables professionals to build Gantt charts directly in their browser, access them from anywhere, and update them on the fly. Once ready, the visuals can be saved as images or as native PowerPoint slides to be used in presentations. Make timelines online now.
Using the right data visualization tools for presentations or reports, professionals can quickly turn complex data into easily-digestible graphics that will impress clients, colleagues and partners.