By Kevin Meyer
I've long been fascinated by visual representations of data – perhaps one of the reasons I prefer whiteboards to computerized data. Wired recently had a good article on the power of pictures over words.
When I went online to shop for a laptop this summer, I faced a blizzard of choices. Was an ultralight worth the price, or would a heavier model do? Did I need a big screen, or would it make the computer a pain to lug around? As I flipped from page to page reading screenfuls of specs, the options baffled me. So I picked up a different thinking tool: a crayon.
Using one of my son’s Crayolas, I drew doodles of all the laptops and covered them with little icons depicting the pros, cons, and cost of each. When I stood back and looked at the pictures, the answer leaped out. I could now “see” at a glance which deal best fit my needs and pocketbook (13-inch MacBook Pro with 8 gigs of RAM).
We grow up with words, which thereby limits how we look at some problems.
Our school systems—and political systems—are designed to promote people who are verbal and eloquent. And text tends to encourage us to describe our problems as narratives or linear lists of facts. But dynamic, complicated problems—like global warming and economic reform—often can’t be boiled down to simple narratives. They’re systems; they have many little parts affecting one another. In those situations, drawing a picture can clarify what’s going on.
But what happens when we try to use visual, graphical methods?
Unfortunately, picture-drawing is considered childish, which is partly why visual thinking has taken a backseat to verbal agility. But that may be changing, because the Internet has boosted the utility of imagery. Consider the Google Maps mashups that highlight patterns in neighborhood crime or political donations, or the explosion of online animations that dissect public affairs.
I have come across a couple great examples of visual representations of data that provide far greater clarity than just words or numbers. The first is the "American Time Use Survey" that looks at how people use their time.
By moving your mouse you can analyze different times of the day, single vs. married folks, and even the impact of kids. Easily.
Another example that has been around for quite awhile is the Baby Name Voyager, which shows the trends of names over time. Now don't get any ideas… my kids are named "Early Retirement" and "Tahiti" thank you! But this tool also lets you easily drill down into data and see the trends of individual names.
How the mighty names have fallen!
Now think about the reams of financial, sales, and other data you review on a daily basis. How can that be simplified into a graphical picture of the business that everyone can understand… and own?