The world of data analytics is becoming enchantingly visual. As the analytics world becomes more in tune with its stakeholders, the realization that humans are optical learners enhances the need for better visual analytics. Our brains are programed to respond to visual perception. Understanding information visually is crucial for the proper processing of complex representations, such as numerical information. Andy Kirk, author of Data Visualization: A Successful Design Process, defines visual analytics as “The representation of data that exploits our visual perception abilities in order to amplify cognition.”
The trick to conquering visual perception is answered by the question: why do our brains like looking at things in a certain way? These things acquired together are called pre-attentive visual attributes. Below is a visual of the thirteen most common pre-attentive attributes. For example, with orientation, our brains are really good at distinguishing vertical lines and horizontal lines. This is why it’s effective to look at data over time as a line because we can see very quickly which way the data is going.
Source: BrightMetrics, Using Color in Data Visualization.
Visualization best practices are the ingredients that will help you take advantage of perceptual psychology and cognition to represent data to be smarter. Throughout my experience working inside Tableau, I have created a list of the top four considerations when creating an actionable dashboard.
First ingredient: Know your audience
Ask yourself questions such as; what does my audience want to know? What do they need to do? How can I make the data meaningful and memorable for my stakeholders? It is easy to get carried away with the data and become distracted by all the ways it can be displayed. Keep your objective in mind. The end result is for a specific audience that is looking for actionable insight that tells a story they can understand and share.
Second ingredient: Layout and organization
Jon Dugger explains the importance of this step in Data Storytelling: Using visualization to share the human impact of numbers: “Organization of data is one of the most overlooked pieces of designing a dashboard. A dashboard with thoughtful organization and the right geographical views will create a channel of clear and rapid data discovery.” Look at your dashboard like a blank canvas in which you have limited space to make an impact. Keep in mind that we look at visuals like we read a book — from the top left corner to the bottom right. Dashboards should be laid out in the same way, with the most important information in the top left corner and the rest of the information strategically positioned.
Third Ingredient: Color
Color is easy to act upon because we can physically see the difference it makes in visualizations. Our visual cortex takes care of the hard work for us. These dashboards provide a comparative example of how one may cognitively prefer to see data. It is much easier to comprehend and act upon the visual on the left versus the right which is overwhelming in its use of color.
Final ingredient: Choosing the right chart or graph
Relationship One has created a guide titled “Master the Art of Data Storytelling” which provides best practices for utilizing the right visualizations for your data.
The psychology behind visual analytics works in your favor. Using these best practices will get you closer to head-turning, delicious visuals that your audience will want to eat up.