Here’s an interesting exercise- try and define what data visualization is. At VisualCue we did and we came up with a dozen different answers. They ranged from complicated answers involving taxonomies of information to simple answers focusing on various ways to see information.

Even though we all had a different definition for what data visualization is today, we all had pretty similar answers to the follow up question- what is data visualization supposed to be?

As usual, the simplest answer was the best-

“Data visualization enables us to use data.”

Look closely and you’ll see that if we unpack that sentence a little bit the definition we came up with has three main parts.

1. Enabling Us

First we use the word “enables.” This word were chosen carefully.  To enable is to make something possible, to give someone the power to do something. It is an expanding, broadening word. Generally, data visualization enables us to not just see data but to see the problems within it. Think of the problems any organization faces like a fire blazing somewhere: everyone can feel the heat, but if you can’t see where it’s coming from you can’t put it out. Data visualization is meant to remove the haze of confusion from our eyes, enabling us to see our problems clearly so we can do something about them.

Next, it’s not “enables the data analyst” or “empowers the high-level executive,” it’s “us.” Data visualization, at its very best, is transparent. It grants everyone the power to understand data and therefore use that information in a way that is best suited for them. Data visualization should be a democratizing (as we’ve said elsewhere) rather than a limiting factor.

2. Information We Can Use

Next, we’ve got the word “use.” That’s where things get complicated. A spreadsheet showing all of the data collected from every entity in an organization is technically a data visualization, it’s just a terrible one. If you want to know how you’re supposed to use all that information you need to spend hours or days poring over it to get anywhere.

The key here is that data visualization should grant understanding. You should be able to look at a visualization and have that “ah-ha” moment where lightning flashes and you see things in an entirely new way. The best visualizations provide that moment without the days spent analyzing it.

Using data means you completely grasp it, you see the story it’s trying to tell you and leave the visualization with a clear picture of what it is and what you can do to make it better. All the data in all the world means absolutely nothing if it can’t be consumed and used.

3. What is Data?

Finally, we just leave it at “data.” Some like to say “Big Data” or “large datasets” or “the Internet of Things” but the truth is that data visualization can apply to any size data, large or small. Just because your organization isn’t collecting hundreds of thousands of data points and metrics every day doesn’t mean that you don’t need value from the data you are collecting.

And that data can come from anywhere. It could be sensors embedded in a machine, Google analytics from a website or figures manually entered into a sales tool. Wherever discrete pieces of information live, big or small, they need to be visualized in order to be used.

And so VisualCue is embarking on a quest to bring data visualization to the world through informative articles right here on The Cue. Consider this your first lesson.

What do you think about the goals of data visualization? Do you agree with our definition? Let us know in the comments or tweet it to us @VisualCue.

Till next time,

The VisualCrew