From Killer Questions Come Powerful Visualisations

by mjohnstone on June 9, 2011

in Guides,Thoughts

questions answered(Hi there! This is a guest blog post from Mark Johnstone. He works at Distilled with a team of infographics designers and writes a nice new blog on visualization called Epic. graphic. I like his 21 everyday visualizations and silence is underrated, check them out! I hope you will enjoy it.)

It has been said that in order to create visualisations that matter, you need to ask good questions.  But as a relative newcomer to this field, I’ve been wondering recently:

What questions should I be asking?

I come from a marketing angle as opposed to Business Intelligence, and in marketing as much as anywhere, the lack of good questions has given birth to a swarm of pointless infographics.

Too often, the only principles claimed to be upheld are ensuring the content is ‘interesting’ and ‘relevant’.  And the questions posed, if any, are:

  • What’s interesting about this data?
  • What’s going on in this field right now?
  • And who is this content relevant to?

The big problem here is how vague the questions are.  Instead of ‘what’s interesting’, how can you ask questions that dig into what matters most to your audience?  How can you help them?  How can your visualisations be really worthwhile?

We should be asking questions of ourselves, of the client, the audience, the data, the context, the media, the visualisation, and design.

By questioning ourselves, I mean to raise awareness of the intent behind our actions.  Are you forcing the data to fit your agenda?  What factors are influencing your decisions?  What assumptions are you making about the process, the client, and the audience?

It’s important to realise not every question will be the killer one each time.  In the same way a footballer won’t score with every shot, not every question will strike gold. Some will return answers that barely scrape the surface.  But others could unearth a few gems.

If you’re passionate about what you do, you’ll want your visualisations to stand up to certain principles.  Amongst others, the standards to which we hold our creations ensure they are:

Purposeful, Effective, Simple, Accurate, and Attractive

And these principles are intended to guide our choices.  But simply having them in the back of your mind won’t guide your choices nearly as well as asking questions which force you to do so.

Examples of such questions include:

  • How will you and your client measure success?
  • What is your audience’s biggest problem?
  • How can you help them?
  • What do they constantly struggle with?
  • How can you make this easier for them to understand?
  • How important is this to them?
  • How well has this already been covered elsewhere?
  • What data can you gather to support this idea?
  • How was the data collected?
  • What assumptions are you making about the data?
  • What other data or information would make this more meaningful?
  • In what context will this information be delivered?
  • How can you deliver the message so it’s easy to follow?
  • Is any of the information you are presenting misleading or confusing?
  • Does the design grab you?
  • Does the design draw attention to the most important parts or is it distracting?
  • What can you remove without sacrificing clarity?

Without going far along this line of investigation, I can already tell it’s powerful.  I have found the questions I’ve been gathering have me thinking differently.  Ideas crop up more frequently, and I feel clearer about the tasks at hand.

The biggest revelation for me has been not simply focusing on the data in front of me, or the medium to be used, but turning my attention to the end user, and drilling down into what matters most to them.

Compared to a process chart, or a list of values pinned to the wall, questions are almost impossible to ignore.  Like the name of that song you can’t remember that finally springs to mind long after the moment has passed.  You just keep working on it.

As I mentioned at the start, I’m in the early stages of this exploration, and I’d love to get your input.

What killer questions do you ask at different stages of the project?

What other questions can you think of?

Please share your thoughts and experiences in the comments below.  I’d love to create a big list of questions we can all use to get better at what we do.

  • http://eavi.com.au/ Keith Suckling

    Great thoughts!
    My favorite questions involve finding out what the audience already know (that is confirmed by the information at hand) and what the audience think they know (but actually isn’t true based on the information you have).
    “The way to do research is to attack the facts at the point of greatest astonishment” ~Celia Green, The Decline and Fall of Science, 1972

    • http://himmelweiss.de Alfred Berlin Hypnose

      That are two very good questions. Thank you.

  • http://www.epicgraphic.com/ Mark from Epic Graphic

    Thanks for your comment Keith. Reminds me of like Hans Rosling’s TED Talk where he starts by explaining what his students thought they knew, then disproved it with data.

    Another good question to ask along these lines is: ‘If You Could Change One Preconception in This Area What Would It Be?’

  • Lori Williams

    Along the lines of “What can you remove without sacrificing clarity?”, I like to ask: What is the one-sentence result? For interactive visualizations, I like to ask: What do I want someone to *do* when they see this viz? How can I make that action more obvious? Why would some do that action? Why wouldn’t they?

    • http://www.epicgraphic.com/ Mark from Epic Graphic

      Thanks for your comment Lori. Another great question would be what’s the one line message here? That would really challenge people to clarify what they were doing.

      The influence question opens up a whole debate like the one here: http://fellinlovewithdata.com/reflections/data-visualization-influence-1

      Can visualisations be used for influence and should they be? Have had some interesting conversations recently about whether the intent of visualisations is to inform or persuade.

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