This article was first published on Towards Data Science - Medium.
Studies show that one of the most fundamental ways to help people today cope with information overload is to visualize it. In layman’s terms, this means drawing it out as a graph, plotting it on a map or even using data to create an interactive diagram.
By mapping out data visually, it is not only easier to digest and understand important information, it is easier to discover key patterns, significant trends and compelling correlations which may have otherwise been challenging to unveil. Bottom line: you don’t just understand what’s happening, you understand why.
What Story Do You Want to Tell?
Before creating a graph or chart, it is crucial to understand why you need one in the first place. Keep in mind, you are creating a visual tool to help people understand complex data, discover patterns, identify trends and ultimately drive a point home.
You also must follow charting best practices. For starters, the numbers need to add up, and you need to scale your charts accordingly. Also, think about how many variables you want to illustrate, the number of data points you want to display and how you want to scale your axis.
Here are traditionally dry types of business intelligence reports/practices that can benefit from the latest data visualization tools:
For the Accounting Department
Let’s say you want to generate a monthly expense report that compares spending data across categories — travel, office supplies, etc. — or even across departments. How can you quickly and easily tell when a particular area is increasing spending to notice opportunities for savings?
While such trends could be easily overlooked in a spreadsheet, a bar chart will visualize the data. It’s an easy way to compare information, as it will uncover highs and lows at a quick glance. An accounting department can present the information to leadership or department heads and gain immediate understanding of challenges. (Who would balk about their over usage of the copy machine when their printing expenses are clearly skyrocketing above another department’s technology costs?)
As more organizations move towards transparency as a strategy for employee engagement and retention, monthly “townhalls,” in which critical data is shared, are becoming common.
While a valiant effort, simply presenting dry revenue/profit/expense data to individuals who may not interact with numbers of that magnitude on a regular basis can simply cause everyone to tune out. Worse yet, a lack of understanding may lead to employees assuming problems where there are none.
Data visualization makes such reports digestible for anyone, regardless of comfort level with analytics. You can clearly demonstrate areas of success and opportunities for improvement. Furthermore, you can present multiple views so that employees can understand that, while profits are down from last month, they’re actually up from the same month last year.
Using data visualization software, you can also make the charts and graphs interactive and accessible. Instead of being shown a set of numbers during one 30-minute meeting per month, you can create a dashboard just for employees to log in to anytime. That way, they can better understand how the company is performing on a regular basis, as well as how their work impacts the whole.
For the Marketing and Sales Teams
It’s that time of year again: Your marketing-skeptical CEO wants you to generate a report that reflects your website page views over the course of a three-month period. And he wants it to correspond with revenue to prove the value of your engagement efforts.
Try it in a line chart. It’s a simple way to connect individual numeric data points, resulting in a simple, straightforward visualization of trends, and how they correspond over a period of time. What does the relationship of your website views, email engagement rates or ad clicks look like in comparison to revenue growth? A positive correlation likely indicates such efforts are successful and can quickly get you buy-in for further investment.
Lead generation can be a fractured process. You look at each step of the funnel and measure engagement and conversion rates, but it’s difficult to see the whole picture.
Data visualization can help. Mapping charts can show the journey of leads at every step so that potential roadblocks are easily spotted and addressed. At the same time, you can notice areas of acceleration — where leads are likely to convert — and learn best practices from those cases.
Furthermore, you can create buyer journeys. As you integrate data visualization tools with your CRM, the most commonly traveled paths to purchase will emerge. Use those trends to create journeys and personas that will inform your strategy going forward.
For Human Resources
Learning Management Reports
Learning management systems (LMS) are increasingly being used by businesses for everything from compliance training to onboarding to stretch opportunities and performance reviews. A well-used LMS can be a wealth of data about your most important asset — your people. However, that data can go to waste if you don’t understand it or if individual managers have views into their direct report, but leadership lacks an overall landscape.
Using data visualization, you can gain an employee progress snapshot that will help you identify your top performers (who may be ready for a promotion) as well as those individuals whose growth may have stagnated or fallen through the cracks.
Hiring Source Reports
Many organizations have decentralized hiring processes in which individual managers are in charge of job posting and candidate recruitment. This fragmented process can result recreating the wheel by focusing on recruitment tactics that either don’t work or result in less-than-qualified candidates.
You can use data visualization to create charts that centralize understanding of the recruitment process. For example, create a pie chart that shows source-to-hire for a variety of mediums you may be using (social media, email, job boards, etc). You can create an overall chart for the organization, plus individual versions for each department.
Using that information, you could quickly notice that job boards work best for IT hires, while most of your marketing team has come from a direct referral. Armed with such data, you can lean into the areas that work to improve your candidate pool and shorten hiring times for every position.
For the Tech Team
No matter the size of your organization, chances are you use a ticketing system to report issues to your IT team, prioritize importance and track the problem until resolution. These ticketing tools typically offer easy-to-digest metrics for number of tickets and time spent per each, but that doesn’t tell much of a story.
What does tell a story is incident level. Where are all these tickets coming from? What equipment, products or users are the biggest culprits? The larger your organization gets, the harder it becomes to notice such trends. IT teams end up fighting fires when they could be building a fire prevention plan.
Using data visualization, you can easily notice the largest causes of incidents and proactively address them in order to reduce the number of tickets overall.
Investors and boards of advisors want constant insight into the businesses they support. Communicating metrics to them regularly can be a challenge for business leaders whose already busy schedules make it difficult to create digestible data, then be available to field questions.
Data visualization tools make the difference. Just as you can create a custom dashboard accessible only to your employees, you can create a dashboard for your investors. Use it to showcase the data they care most about in a visually compelling way that can be understood without guidance. That way, investors can log in on their own time to check progress, and your quarterly meetings can be used for strategizing based on that data, rather than sludging through the numbers.
Seeing Is Understanding
Thanks to our society’s ever-decreasing attention span — eight seconds — and because we are constantly exposed to massive amounts of information, it is vital that we convey our data quickly and visually.
Data visualization allows us to understand information quickly and to tweak different variables to see their effect.
A picture really is worth 1,000 words. As a business owner or manager of a team, you cannot afford to educate your stakeholders using raw data alone.
When you make your data visual, it’s easier for people to digest compelling insights so you can increase attention, retention and engagement across the board.
By: Payman Taei