In the most recent issue of the Harvard  Business Review we saw an article that we just had to read: Visualizations That Really Work.

Being pretty obsessed with all things data visualization everyone in the office read the article and we were immediately impressed with everything that we read, but we also had a few questions and insights of our own that we could share.

We have been at this data visualization game for pretty much one reason: we realized a long time ago that using data to make smarter decisions and improve your business was going to be a key competitive advantage in the future. It’s just nice to have some third-party confirmation that we were right all along.

The must-have skill of the 21st century

According to Scott Berinato, the author of the piece, “Visual communication is a must-have skill for all managers, because more and more often, it’s the only way to make sense of what they do.”

Berinato cites data the reason for this relatively new development that changed data visualization from something that wasn’t all that necessary into something that is absolutely crucial too stay competitive. He says “Decision making increasingly relies on data, which comes just as with such overwhelming velocity, and in such volume, that we can’t comprehend it without some layer of abstraction, such as a visual one.”

As an example of data-driven decision making he tells a story about how the managers of the Osprey aircraft at Boeing needed to improve the efficiency of takeoffs and landings. But there were so many sensors recording so much data that “without visualization, detecting the inefficiencies hidden in the patterns and anomalies of that data would be an impossible slog.”

This story immediately caught our attention given our previous focus on The Internet of Things and the veritable never-ending mountain of streaming, real-time data that these sensors provide. One of our most successful implementations for Paviloche ice cream in Brazil focused exactly on improving the performance of ice cream delivery trucks and drivers with lots of streaming sensor data by turning that data into something understandable: an intuitive visualization.

Declarative vs. Exploratory Dataviz

The entire thrust of Berinato’s article is that visual communication is a discipline: it is an entire field of study that should, when done correctly, change your way of thinking.

We strongly encourage our readers to explore the entire article in depth and give it the proper attention that it deserves, but before you do consider this. In the article, Berinato breaks down data visualization into two basic types: declarative and exploratory. He explains that in declarative data visualizations you are usually affirming knowledge that you already know. The exploratory type of data visualization, the one that we specialize in, is more focused on finding ways to confirm and discover answers to important questions.

That isn’t to say that we think the declarative data visualizations are useless: far from it. We are currently working on an update for VisualCue that will allow anyone to share a Mosaic they  have created in order to present the findings of their data explorations in a more formal setting.

We are more concerned with data exploration for confirmation and discovery because that is more of a challenge: we are explorers and thinkers at heart. We enjoy creating data visualizations that not only help you find answers to your important business questions but creating visualizations so intuitive and easy to navigate that you can come up with new questions altogether.

Data Exploration for Insight

We’ve talked about how looking at problems in a new way is a proven method for finding fresh solutions. In his article, Berinato further breaks down data visualization into four different categories: idea illustration, everyday dataviz, idea generation and visual discovery.

Those last two, idea generation and visual discovery, caught our attention. According to Berinato idea generation is a brainstorming session with data: “it’s used to find new ways of seeing how the business works and to answer complex managerial challenges.” He later defines visual discovery data visualizations as being more focused on trend spotting in a business intelligence environment. Of this type of data visualization he writes “it’s exciting to try, because it often produces insights that can’t be gleaned any other way.”

We have written before about exactly why this statement is true: it’s called insight problem solving and it’s a proven method for making better decisions, faster.

What we have done at VisualCue is found a way to combine idea generation and visual discovery into one tool. By transforming tabular, two-dimensional data into intuitive visualizations with icons and color-driven thresholds you can accomplish the goals of both types of data visualization in one fell swoop.

Seeing data visually aids in idea generation because it codifies, in an iconic, visual language, the person, process or physical asset you are tracking or trying to improve. As soon you can see a business process visually you can gain new ideas on how best to restructure or improve it.

Once the data is in a visual format VisualCue has provided tools that allow you to explore that data at will. Berinato mentions that data exploration tools encourage interactivity because in order to glean new insight from the data you need to constantly restructure it, move it around and see it in new ways. That’s precisely why we have provided an intuitive search function, filters, grouping and sorting options as well as maps, diagrams and calendars so you can see always see your Tiles in a new way and easily get to those fresh insights.

Berinato was right- this kind of data exploration is exciting. We love it because we get to see how visualizing data leads to new insights and that flash of inspiration where the way forward suddenly becomes clear is always amazing.

Until next time,

The VisualCrew