If you been reading Dr. Wu's series on big data or following any of the twitter hashtags for #socialanalytics or #bigdata you're well aware that current business intelligence systems are now being repackaged and thrown at the "problem of big data". Problem is, per design, too often this old school systems thinking ideas are creating systems to identify the same problems and define the same scalable and predictable solutions.
But the social customer experience is breaking all the old rules, it's not typical in any way shape or form. To architect change in our organizations, we need to learn how to look at the world of data differently. So how do we, as business decision makers, think about big data differently?
If I had to break down this process for pulling insights out of big data it comes down to understanding pattern recognition and tapping into your caveman brain. In this episode of PBS Off Book, data visualization pioneer Ed Tufte explains how a well-designed graphic can completely change how we perceive information, and how data should always trump style. This is well worth 8 minutes of your time to view. But if you don’t have that time I’ll break it down for you below.
At the end of the day our brains are not designed to consume massive data sets and puke out knowledge. The brain is designed to identify patterns. It evolved this way over thousands of years. At the same time our vocabulary matured to help us live and thrive as communal creatures. We became storytellers to communicate to our friends and family how to live and survive in a rapidly evolving and hostile world.
Julie Steele of O’Reilly Media, an expert on the area of data visualization puts it nicely when she says “We evolved to make snap decisions… when we look at a field of grass we need to be able to discern whether all those lines in the grass are just a series of moving reeds or a tiger coming to eat me”.
For Julie says that Data visualization has few basic principles.
You as the designer and what you have to say and communicate
The reader and what they bring to the table in terms of their own bias, assumptions and context and you need to account for that
Data itself and what it has to say and how it informs the truth
Josh Smith [hyperakt] Truth changes as the you have more understanding of the world and data itself is a result of research so it is just a clue to the end truth. A good infographic contributes to the understanding of a complex story by communicating accurate and complex data in a way that many people can understand.
Steps to build good data visualizations:
Dig deeply into the data yourself to identify key points, put them in a hierarchy
Look to merge key points of information, this will help you begin to write the narrative in a clear way
Focus your attention on the 1 key fact that everything can revolve around and become the hero of the piece, this will be the one key data point that excites the audience and draws them in to the piece
Next focus attention on guiding users to and from that one key fact to show them the nuances of the conversation
Data are measurement of something, but remember that most of these something’s are human systems, or relationships.
One of the most exciting area of data visualization is the idea of revelation or showing something that has not been seen before
Anybody can visualize data in excel and show us some bar charts, but when you put data into a loose narrative and allow room for the reader[s] to stand back and focus on the important or simplest but most relevant elements of the data they will naturally fill in the gaps with the context of their shared or combined experience to reveal something new. We don’t always have to find the new thing but just create a space and view of the data that allows for this kind of revelation.
So how do we do this? How do we shift our perspective?
How do we become a storyteller or artist whose medium of choice is data? My suggestion would be to start by discovering your inner-artist. If you live in the Bay area like we do, try taking a walk along the San Francisco bay at night and think on it for a while. To help get your artistic juices flowing you’ll find 25,000 twinkling LED lights come to life lighting up the night and the Bay Bridge.
In the artist Leo Villareals own words he shares some light on how we might approach this opportunity of exploring our lives through work and art when he says: “My work is focused on stripping systems down to their essence to better understand the underlying structures and rules that govern how they work.”
Cheers and happy architecting.
Xavier Jimenez Director, Social Strategy Consulting