If content is king, then context is God.– Gary Vaynerchuk
When you work closely with a set of data for a long time, the insights that emerge may begin to feel intuitive. It is natural to think that the audience for your data visualization will find the seemingly ‘obvious’ stories in the data as easily as you. This may be true occasionally, but why not make it a guarantee by setting the user up for success by adding some context to your work. This will also allow you an opportunity to guide the way your data visualization is consumed and ensure that you and your audience will align on those aforementioned ‘obvious’ stories in your data.
If you don’t believe your data visualization will be interpreted differently by each stakeholder, you have likely never seen an Iron Viz Championship. During the contest, three contestants receive an identical dataset, and have twenty minutes to create the best data visualization they can. We are always amazed by the diversity of stories that emerge from the same dataset each and every time the competition is held. The designers not only find unique stories in the data, but they communicate the stories using varying chart types, fonts, colors, and context.
Here are just a few tips on setting up your data visualization:
- Always include a title. This helps set an expectation for what your work is about and can provide valuable information to the end user such as data sources and the date range covered.
- Ideally, you can ask a single question to open your data visualization. Each item in your dashboard will then ladder up to answering that single question. Oftentimes, one set of data can be used to answer many different questions, but by stating up front what question you are focusing on answering, you guide how your audience will consume your data visualization.
- Explain the features available in your dashboard up front. For example, if your visualization is interactive, explain the filtering options available.
Here is an example of a set-up we like from Anya A’Hearn in her 2012 Iron Viz winner, Does Tornado Alley Deserve Its Moniker?. Notice that the viz asks one question, and the rest of the viz attempts to answer the question. We also like how she saved real estate by building her color legend into the set-up. This also helps the end user understand how to read the dashboard right from the start: