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Connecting with data

Sep 2016, by Isha Suhag, Designer

 

Companies that capture and analyse data, discover insights, and take action on those insights are better positioned to have a competitive business advantage in their sector. Data driven companies harvest data to make smart business decisions. As a brand it is important to instill the habit of data-driven decision making into your business.

A study from the MIT Center for Digital Business found that organizations that are most driven by data-based decision making had 4% higher productivity rates and 6% higher profits. This is partly due to the fact that decisions based on evidence are far more reliable than the potentially biased ones based on instinct or assumptions. Brands who consistently tap into the insights gained from their data can innovate and find solutions to problems and trends that they identify over time. This data also helps the employees connect their performance to business results, which helps them identify new opportunities for improvement.

We recently worked with Populus, a research consultancy that helps businesses to shape data-driven strategies based on a deep understanding of their key audiences, which has been derived from data. The following are a few insights into the world of presenting data.

 

Tell a story

Data-driven companies can face setbacks if they rely solely on the strength of their data. Working with big and disparate data sources doesn’t just consume time, it can be dull and dullness inspires disinterest. Typical data-driven companies with their trademark PowerPoint presentations, Excel charts and stock image littered reports occasionally skew their efforts towards recording and presenting the data. In order to intellectually stimulate, data must resonate with audiences. Our minds don’t retain independent data, they recall stories. Truly powerful stories are unforgettable.

Jennifer L. Aaker, Professor of Marketing at Stanford University demonstrates that when shown statistics, the parts of our brain that process language are activated, so we can understand but not feel. However, when a story is shared our whole brain is activated and we can feel. Meaning is extracted because of the personal connection we feel with the story. The better a story is told, the more we connect to the narrative, and the storyteller. She concludes, “For lasting impact you need to persuade the rational brain but also resonate with the emotional brain.”

Edit and curate the data.

John Wilder Tukey, one of the most influential statisticians of the last century, once said, “The combination of some data and an aching desire for an answer does not ensure that a reasonable answer can be extracted from the body of data.”

Not every collection of data reaches conclusive results. It is important to draw out the important pieces; those that link up smoothly and help us reach a conclusion. Overwhelming or confusing numbers aren’t likely to stick around in our memory bank. Data is only constructive when we can remember the lessons we learnt from it and the observations that strike us. The idea is simple enough, to edit the clutter and carefully organise the data to create a coherent story.

In our work with Populus, we sought to bring out the purpose behind every piece of data that was included using a design system comprising four distinct parts: the question, the answer, the illustrated data to verify the answer and footnotes for further information. The illustrations we created weren’t mere ornament – they helped editorialise the charts, other statistical content and textual commentary. This is a system of recording evidence simply, beautifully and engagingly.

Clutter is a failure of design, not an attribute of information.

Edward Tufte

Context is crucial. Brevity is king.

“What questions does this data answer?” Textual commentary gives context to statistical content and is one of the most important keys to help us tell a story through data. Choose your words carefully, keeping the body copy simple and brief. It helps the reader understand the story and smoothly helps them reach a conclusion, which can then help them channel their knowledge into clearly thought out, data-backed solutions to potential problems etc. The aim of the body copy should be to deliver easily digestible content that weaves a compelling narrative.

It is with words as with sunbeams.
The more they are condensed,
the deeper they burn.

Robert Southey