Data Visualizations: This Isn’t 1996

April 9, 2013
89 Views

During the summer of 1996, I interned at a high-tech company near Boston, MA. I played with data for most of the day, occasionally sneaking in looks at these cool new things called web sites. Rather than presenting my data in basic spreadsheets, I would throw it into a graph or chart. In Microsoft Excel, that was easy enough to do.

Fast forward 17 years and the state of data visualization is orders of magnitude more advanced. Yet, many presentations still contain slides like this one:

During the summer of 1996, I interned at a high-tech company near Boston, MA. I played with data for most of the day, occasionally sneaking in looks at these cool new things called web sites. Rather than presenting my data in basic spreadsheets, I would throw it into a graph or chart. In Microsoft Excel, that was easy enough to do.

Fast forward 17 years and the state of data visualization is orders of magnitude more advanced. Yet, many presentations still contain slides like this one:

In a word, yuck.

The vast majority of the time, spreadsheets make for truly awful slides. What’s more, as I write in Too Big to Ignore, today there are so many neat ways to visualize data. Forget basic pie charts and bar graphs. They’re better than the slide above, but we’re not limited to Excel when telling our stories. It’s not 1996 anymore.

I recently started playing with Easel.ly, a drag-and-drop tool that allows users to create sunning, visually compelling infographics. You can see from the objects above that customization is very WISYWIG. See below:

easelly-infographics

Why should we spend the time sexifying our data? Many reasons come to mind. For one, infographics let you’ll tell a much better story with data. And let’s not forget our ever-declining attention spans. When we see hard-to-read (let alone understand) slides like the spreadsheet above, how many of us just tune out? I’ll cop to it. We’re carrying around mini-computers in the way of tablets and smart phones. It’s not difficult for us to sneak a peak at our e-mail or text someone if a slide bores or confuses us, especially in at a conference.

Bottom line: it’s just plain lazy to present data like this–whether or not that data is structured or not. Lamentably, though, that doesn’t stop making that mistake. The result: people look down at their devices, not up at the speaker. Is that really what you want?

Simon Says

Some people say that you shouldn’t include data in presentations, period. They cite horrible slides and tables like the one above.

While I concur about ugly slides, I couldn’t disagree with the “no data in presentations” argument more. We live in an era of Big Data. If you want to make an argument to do–or not do–something, data can certainly help, with one major caveat: that data needs to be presented in a compelling fashion. Confusing your attendees or colleagues with impenetrable spreadsheets and tables is unlikely to achieve the desired results.

Feedback

What say you?