“I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.” – Mark Twain
I love this quote from Mark Twain because the author is putting a value on prioritizing content. It is said that Twain’s complete bibliography remains incomplete due to the volume of his writings, and the fact that they were often completed for obscure publishers – not to mention under a variety of pen names. However, even as one of the most prolific writers of all time, the quote above implies that Twain believed the most effective storytelling was done by being clear and concise.
This same idea applies to data visualization, and is the basis for the fourth tip in the data-driven storytelling series: Keep It Simple. One of the most common mistakes I see in dashboard layout and design is attempting to create silver bullet dashboards that provide every possible answer to the business question at hand – all in a single view. One of the things I find myself saying often is ‘just because it is possible in Tableau does not mean you should do it.’ Tableau makes it extremely easy to add filters, charts, and widgets to a dashboard, but there is a point when too many options for the end user actually detracts from your visualization, making it harder for the story in the data to emerge.
In the previous tip, Leverage Color, I shared a driving principle behind my work which is Seth Godin’s idea of being ‘re-markable’. Another concept that I always have top of mind is Occam’s Razor, usually described as “the simplest answer is usually the correct one.” William of Ockham did not have data visualization in mind when he devised this theory in the early 13th century, but I believe the concept fits quite nicely with the practice. Think about how bar charts have withstood the test of time, and despite their simplicity, continue to be one of the most effective ways to communicate the differences in data.
Less is almost always more when it comes to communicating your data-driven story. To help me prioritize what I share within a single view of my data visualizations, I often stick to a general rule of thumb of including no more than twelve widgets. I stole this threshold from Google Analytics, which allows you to add a maximum of twelve widgets to a custom dashboard. The twelve widgets include charts, titles, and filters. To help illustrate this tip, let’s take a look at my most-viewed Tableau Public viz to date, which was built using four widgets: One title, two filters, and one chart.
I completely credit the success of this visualization with its simplicity. The visualization is simple in several different ways:
- It asks and answers a single question.
- It offers only two filters – one with two options; the other with four.
- The story is communicated using a single chart. (For more on creating this simple and effective chart type, see How to Make Funnel Charts in Tableau.)
The story in this visualization is almost impossible not to understand – and understand very quickly – by analysts and non-analysts alike. By keeping it simple, you maximize the effectiveness of your data-driven storytelling across the largest audience possible.