/ Visual perceptionData visualizationData stories


Many people don’t feel comfortable with the idea that the NSA, Google or other big corporations are collecting our data. If online shopping data, search requests, likes, communication data and so on are related to another, you can draw a pretty good picture about ourselves and our preferences. We know that. Even the new European data protection policies aren’t changing that much. I have to agree to the terms, to use the many online services. I still get spammed with “special offers”, and I will not pay a lawyer to enforce my rights.

Nevertheless, we should not demonize data collections per say. Instead we should democratize the ability to turn it into something useful and usable.

Think of data collections as an external brain, that memorizes with factual accuracy, while our human brain stores only fractions of what really happened. When we retrieve information, our brain recalls an on-the-fly reconstruction (the Human Memroy)of an event. In addition, context at the time of the event, as well as context at the time of retrieval biases the outcome.

So, thanks a lot to all the people that work on making data storage and retrieval better, faster, easier. Thanks to all the people that employ their data science skills to pull the nuggets out of an ever growing stream of data.

There is just one minor issue: these nuggets are still an awful lot of data. So much, that it forces your spread sheet to its knees, if you are just trying to look at it.

As a matter of fact, looking at it might reveal the aesthetics of a default type face and our attention might be directed by formatting features, but to grasp the meaning of how these numbers relate to the world round us, requires a lot of motivation and mental endurance.

Applying design skills to data visualizations is the cure. It is not about making things pretty (although that never hurts, either), it actually goes much deeper into our understanding. Seeing patterns and understanding relationships, that help us deal with the complexities of our world and all the processes that keep it running.

The following example is on purpose a simple bar chart – nothing fancy! Say you have to compare different products in terms of nutritional aspects.

Which product has the most protein?

Color used poorly can turn a simple bar chart into a nightmare. We literally have to force our brains to read the text. Intuitively we are drawn towards the color bars. They win the fight for our attention, because their vibrancy, contrast and boldness beat the text anytime. Then, we are stuck, looking at wildly colored bars without grasping what we really want to know. Ok – eventually and with some effort, we get it.

The only difference in the following bar chart is the use of color. It is now used to differentiate the 4 nutritional categories (vs 9 products) and its vibrancy is not screaming at us.

The use of color guides our eyes from top to bottom, where we conveniently find the category names and details about the values – without obscuring understanding with visual confusion.

If you wanted to analyze the effects of weather changes on the duration of summer, you could compare multiple heat maps like the one below – which shows the high temperatures per day for 100 cities, for an entire year. It takes one glance to understand the pattern hidden in 36,500 data points. Without much more effort, we could look at another five or ten years to see the bigger picture.


Visualizing data helps to look at the world from a more objective point of view and to use our human perception skills to discover otherwise hidden stories. Stories to connect data to our emotions, to make associations and to draw conclusions with ease.

We do need to collect a lot of data and safely store what we need to know about the history, because it helps us to deal with the complexity of today and tomorrow. But, data by itself holds little value, unless it is converted into something that we humans can see, understand und use to drive change.
Charts ≠ Charts. There are good and bad ones. The bad ones display data. The good ones answer questions, that are relevant for people.
Telling stories with data is the link between numbers and and what drives us in life –emotions.


The human memory. Source: http://www.human-memory.net/processes_recall.html, visited on 02.07.2018

    Sandra Nieves

    Sandra Nieves

    Design Thinking, data visualization, user experience design and founder at data-and-you

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