The True Value of Displaying Data Visually

The True Value of Displaying Data Visually

“Based on a true story”

The first thing that brought your attention to this article was most likely the picture above. Perhaps the reason you clicked to read this article was that the title is intriguing to you but nevertheless the image had a significant impact. Visuals are not just used to attract attention but also to inform. They help tell the story of what the text or information is about. Have you picked up on the visualization trend in social media? Over the past few years Facebook redesigned their interface to expand the image real-estate, image-based social network, Instagram, exploded (in a good way), and Twitter recently announced that images will now automatically show up in steams. Using visualization to inform becomes very interesting in the area of data. Before we get all “gung-ho” about visualizing our data, let’s try and examine the true value of visualization and assess its role in the world of data.

On First Glance: Making the case for visualization


Researchers from the Aberdeen Group recently explored the importance of displaying data visually in the organization’s “Seeing the Big Picture: Visualization for Big Data” report.

“Visual images, graphs, and charts are often the most efficient way to communicate large amounts of information at once. A human being’s sense of sight is by far the fastest of the five senses when it comes to gathering and sending information to the brain, as proven by a 2006 study by the University of Pennsylvania.”

Research at 3M Corporation concluded that we process visuals 60,000 times faster than text. Further studies find that the human brain deciphers image elements simultaneously, while language is decoded in a linear, sequential manner taking more time to process.

Translation: The visualization of data helps us comprehend data more efficiently.


Research by American Educationist, Edgar Dale, showed that the retention rate for visual is double the retention rate for reading. In other words, visual understandings leave a longer impression.

Comprehension and retention are important but they fall short of the true worth of data visualization….

The true value of data visualization

Storytelling. It’s that simple. Visualization of data is used to help turn raw, complex insights into an easy-to-understand story. At Optimization Group, we encounter this truth on a daily basis. As we prepare our project reports we push the data into engaging visual charts, graphs, and tables to help the data come alive and tell a story for our clients.

The downfall of visualization

The old adage “a picture is worth a thousand words,” is perhaps even more prominent for analytics, but is this a good thing? What if during the process of creating the data visual, we affected the accuracy of the data? This would tell us a different story.

I’ve seen this type of error fall into two categories:

  • Lack of interpretation – the user creates faulty visuals because they lack the knowledge to accurately interpret data. Essentially they don’t know which data to visualize and how to visualize it.
  • Fitting a square peg in a round hole – There are a plethora of data visualization tools available (some free, some paid). In my experience with some of the free tools, I’ve found them to very restricting. I wasn’t able to present my data to tell the true story.

I hope that as data visualization becomes more prominent we realize that the true value of data visualization is not comprehension or retention, but rather storytelling. It’s about making the data come alive to tell us a story. We need to do everything we can to ensure the tale we’re telling is found in the non-fiction section and includes the tagline, “Based on a true story”.

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