Workshops are Beautiful – data visualisation with David McCandless

Earlier this month, myself and colleagues from analytics, user experience and digital product management teams, were privileged to attend a workshop run by David McCandless, the author, writer and designer behind Information is Beautiful.

As a user experience researcher, I’m immersed in quantitative and qualitative information about audiences. Analysing and synthesising this into themes and threads comes naturally. However, packaging these stories for stakeholders – particularly those who don’t want details –  is a challenge I’m keen to address. I sensed that I wasn’t the only one, so when I heard about this workshop , I spotted a chance for all of us to become better data story tellers.

The programme was discursive, practical, fun and potentially one of the best knowledge sharing experiences I’ve been exposed to.

Story telling – the glue which bakes interest into raw data.

The foundation of a good visualisation is storytelling. A strong narrative, is the glue which bakes energy into raw data. Combined with carefully selected graphical patterns, the goals of a visual become clear. The example below is a perfect example of this because it explains itself, almost at a glance.

Screen Shot 2017-04-30 at 15.07.29

The benefits and relevance of storytelling

Discussing the benefits and goals of data visualisation reinforced the duty that researchers and analysts have to curate information in an accessible way. Story telling, as a goal, can sound vague, so we dissected its benefits, which include things like:

  • showing patterns and trends
  • comparing differences
  • conveying a messaging
  • making data more relatable and less abstract
  • making it easier to understand
  • filling an information gap

For example, this graphic combines a time line, text, line chart, colour coding and icons, to demonstrate trends. In this case the trend is complements related to skills and appearance in Disney films over the last 8 decades. The goal of this data visualisation is clear: it signals that female lead characters have become stronger over the years.  For me, this elevates the data and makes it far more absorbing than a default bar chart.

Screen Shot 2017-04-30 at 15.27.36

This covers just a few of the narrative tools you can use to to communicate

  • ranges
  • categories
  • comparisons
  • contracts
  • rhythms
  • flows
  • systems
  • rankings
  • reframings

Spotting opportunities to visualise information

Information pain points, can be used as a starting point for improvement. For example, information which is poorly presented can make people feel:

  • Bored
  • ignorant
  • bewildered
  • frustrated

Where this happens, an opportunity is sown to present a data-driven story which is interesting, sheds light, builds understanding or tells a story more effectively. This could support my processes,  particularly when synthesising complex insights from user testing.

However, some data stories may be less interesting

It occurred to me that some stories are less relevant . For example, who cares about the correlation between the price of a big mac and a country’s GDP?   Why correlate data unless there’s a valuable question to address? For example, a question like, ‘Brexit who are the winners and losers?’ addresses a genuine information gap and presents a chance to better understand a situation where fragments of information are presented in the media. 

 We might then focus on metrics  to better understand this, like:

  • EU funding losses
  • environmental policy changes
  • Trade deals gained and lost
  • Labour force gains and losses

In summary, faced with a tsunamis of information,  curating data in an accessible way, whilst focussing on questions that matter, can be a rewarding challenge for analysts, researchers and designer alike.

Visit for future workshop dates.


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