Big Data and analytics may well pave the way for some really cool innovations, greater customer understanding and real time monitoring of what’s actually happening in the business. But unless the results are presented to the right people in a meaningful way, then the size of the data sets or the sophistication of the analytics tools won’t really matter and the results will not inform decision-making and improve performance.

Of course Big Data and analytics are far sexier than humble reporting. Thankfully, reporting is in the middle of an extensive and exciting makeover that promises to help unleash the true potential of data.

New era of data visualisation

Of course you’ve seen the traditional sorts of graphs and charts anyone can turn out with an Excel spreadsheet, but big data analytics have created a wave of new visualisation tools capable of making the outputs of the analytics look pretty, and improving understanding and speed of comprehension. Many of these tools are open-source, free applications that can be used independently or alongside another application or your existing design applications, often utilising drag-and-drop functionality.

People don’t want to search for the insights locked within the data, they want their insights provided to them, nicely packaged in a way that helps them understand the messages and these new tools can help in that challenge.

There are clearly many old and new ways to visualise data but visualisation is not the only goal. When considering how to best tell your story you may want to use some or all of the following.

Display maps

Maps are already really strong visual representations but they can be presented in a variety of different ways with a variety of additional information overlaid across the map to provide additional insight. If you need to display complex data sets where the story would be simplified and made clearer if those data sets were overlaid on maps, then there are a number of tools that can help.

Display text

If you want to display text but don’t necessarily want to get into the nitty-gritty of what individual people or sub-sets said, then a great way to illustrate sentiment or weighted opinion is to use word clouds.

There are many free software programs that will convert text data into a data visualisation. This can be particularly useful for illustrating the qualitative information contained within a customer survey or employee engagement survey. The weighting allows you to see what most people think about your product, service, brand or company, which can offer up insights and avenues for improvement without reading every response.

Display data

The ways of displaying data is as diverse as the data itself. And regardless of what type of data you have there will be an optimal way to display it. For example, D3.js is a JavaScript library for manipulating documents based on data and helps to bring that data to life using HTML, SVG and CSS. This free software can manipulate data in a mind-boggling array of ways from box plots and dendrograms to hexagonal binding and interactive force layout.

Displaying behaviour and emotions

There are even ways to display behaviour or data that wasn’t even possible to know years ago. For example, we can now know hotspots on websites. Crazy Egg allows you to track visitor clicks, see where visitors stop scrolling down the page, connect clicks with traffic types and pinpoint hotspots using their heat map tool. The heat map tool allows you to see what areas of your site are warm or hot with regular visitors and which parts are web wilderness.

This type of tool can easily and very quickly illustrate user or customer behaviour online. There are even ways to visualize whether text from any source is happy, sad, angry or frustrated. And believe it or not you can even visualize the shape of a song! Software is available that takes the data embedded in music and displays it as a visualisation called Shape of a Song.

Displaying connections

Data by itself is often really interesting, but when you can compile data and see the connections that exist between different data sets, then it really can deliver huge value to your business.

One of the earliest data visualisations depicting the connection between different variables was created in 1861 by Charles Joseph Minard. Minard created a two-dimensional graphic that illustrated the four changing variables that contributed to Napoleon’s downfall as he marched toward Moscow. The variables were the army’s direction as they travelled, the location the troops passed through, the size of the army as troops died from hunger and wounds, and the freezing temperatures they experienced.

Data visualisations offer us an opportunity to see the big picture very quickly and understand things that text and numbers would take a long time to explain. The human brain is wired to see patterns and connections so visualisation taps into a natural process and speed up comprehension.

Endless possibilities

To get a fuller sense of everything that can now be done when it comes to data visualisation, from the old to the new, take a look at the Periodic Table of Visualisation Methods.

Covering data, information, concept, strategy, metaphor and compound visualisation this innovative display allows you to scroll over each ‘element’ to get a visual example and description. A brilliant resource for anyone keen to know what’s possible…

The key message is that there is a vast amount of data that now exists and it provides us with a very real opportunity to find out things we simply didn’t know before and often that knowledge allows us to squash unhelpful and inaccurate assumptions.

Beautiful graphics can still be meaningless. We need to package the information in a way that tells a story.

Which data visualisation tools have helped you in your business? Let us know…