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Using a design process for data visualisation projects

Tiny Viz Talks—11 May 2021


00:08—Thank you very much for having me everyone I'm, as Sophie said, an information designer from Mudano, which is now part of Accenture, so I work in a huge consultancy on quite a range of projects, and I'm going to talk to you today about using a design process for data visualisation projects.

00:27—So in any data visualisation project you'll have some data, and you'll have some people who need information from that data, and data visualisation kind of sits in the middle, to be the kind of conversation between those two things.

00:39—But sometimes when we're really focused on what we're trying to produce in terms of visualisation, or maybe someone's given us a really direct instructions to what they want to see, we can get a little bit focused on the data visualisation – maybe we're trying out something really technically difficult or we get bogged down in that so we sometimes forget about the end user.

01:00—And in this case a design process can be really helpful as a framework to cement our thinking and make sure that we're doing the right kinds of things.

01:11—There are quite a lot of different diagrams that people use for design processes, but fundamentally they all kind of talk about: understanding the situation that you're working in, coming up with some ideas to solve the problem that is arising from those, and trying things out and testing them on people, and then eventually getting people to use it.

01:30—The Design Council has one that focuses on divergent and convergent thinking: divergent when you're trying to open up to new ideas and explore different options, and convergent when you're trying to narrow down your focus and get really specific about what you're trying to do. And so they have a double diamond shape thing.

01:49—The Interaction Design Foundation has interpreted it slightly differently and they go through the stages of empathising with your users, trying to understand what it's like to be them, defining your problem, coming up with some ideas, prototyping those ideas, and testing your ideas. The Interaction Design Foundation brings in the important aspect that this isn't a linear process, it doesn't go from A to B. You loop back and everything that you learn along the process can inform previous decisions. And it's absolutely right to iterate on those, as Ana said.

02:23—At Mudano we've created a very complicated one, that I quite like because it's squiggly and it shows that it's not quite an easy thing to do and sometimes you have to go right back to the start um but it still has those four stages: understanding what's going on, identifying the challenges, creating concepts and ideas, experimenting with them, and then embedding it in your organisation. The precise details of this will vary from project to project, and you just need to pick what's right for your current situation.

02:54—The reality does not necessarily allow us to do the process from start to finish. Often other people get in the way.

03:03—So let's say you had the global superstore data set, or something similar to that, and someone told you "I want to see sales over time".

03:12—This slightly limits your ability to be creative with this and to really think about what you're trying to visualise, because they've told you, so you start right in the middle of the design process: you're probably at the prototyping stage at this point and you probably don't need that many iterations because they've said what they want to see – it's quite easy for you to find that maybe – and you can present it to them so it's quite limiting as an information designer or a visualisation expert to do that.

03:42—If you ask them why, you might come up with a little bit more information.

03:45—There could be a number of reasons that they want to see sales over time information: perhaps they're working on a marketing campaign and they want to know what products they should focus on, maybe they're in charge of warehouse space and they want to make sure that they're making most efficient use of it, perhaps they're checking the contracts with the delivery company and they want to focus on the right areas geographically, or maybe they're thinking about how they might reward their loyal customers.

04:09—All of these will probably have some variation of sales over time that is useful for understanding these problems, but the types of graphs that you'll come up with each of these different problems are probably quite different and you'll focus on different areas. You might use filters in a different way, you might combine it with different types of data and you might realise that actually you don't have all the data that you need to answer the questions.

04:33—For example, I haven't studied the global superstore dataset recently, but I don't think it has the size of the product on there so if you're trying to fit it in a warehouse you may not know how big it is.

04:43—And at this point you open yourself up to a bit more of the design process. Now you can come up with a more specific definition of what you're trying to do and you can open up to other problems that you might need to address in order to really give the user the most useful information. You've got a lot more opportunity to come up with ideas and you've actually got things to try out here and it's not just one chart that someone's told you they want to see, you've got a lot of different options that you can try.

05:12—And, ultimately, it's probably going to be a more fulfilling experience and more useful for people.

05:17—And then at this point you can always work backwards to understand a bit more about the users themselves and to conduct research with them: ask them questions about what they do all day and really try and fit your visualisation into their day-to-day work, so it's not just another thing that they have to deal with, it's something that can fit quite seamlessly into their their work every day. And you can do this by observing their behaviours, and what they do. Ask them questions about what they like or don't like, and come up with insight about the people who are using the data visualisation that you're creating.

05:53—And then you can really transform this process to make sure that the users, the people who need the information from the data, are the ones that you're really focusing on throughout the whole process.


06:09—Brilliant thank you so much Emily. Everyone please pop your questions in the chat. But while we're waiting for those to come in, I have a couple:So first of all, I loved your talk through of the development of your specific Mudano design process, just wondering for someone picking that process up and who's about to embark on a project, how would you recommend that they allocate time to each phase of that? Would you say that there's a proportion of time that you expect to spend on each phase or is it sort of too agile to even say?

06:44—Well there's the ideal, and then there's what you're actually going to get on a project, which are very different things. I think ideally you'd spend a lot of time in the research area understanding your users and defining the problem, and then from that hopefully the visualisation side of things is relatively quick. So I'm kind of lumping in technical requirements in that as well and understanding how the data works... I don't know that stuff very well. So that would all be in the first part of it and hopefully the majority of your work would be in that area. In reality it doesn't work like that. People don't like to pay for research time, they just want to see stuff, so usually you need to come in in the middle point, show them some stuff and then say "I can make this better if you let me ask you some questions" and so then that kind of working back tends to be more how people do it. But once you're used to working with a particular client usually they're more receptive to doing that first because it is actually faster in the long run, but it just kind of takes that conversation and bringing them on the journey of using a design process for data viz as well, because it's probably not something they're familiar with.

07:55—Definitely, thank you. We've got a couple of questions coming in, I'm just doing to read them out now. So Michelle's just asked how do you balance deadlines for the process, and she's also said great talk I love how fun it is thank you.

08:13—Balancing deadlines with the process I think it's just about communicating with people and kind of letting them know what your limitations are and how much you can achieve with the information that you currently have available. You'll always be able to do something, uh unless you actually can't in which case, you know, just tell them that! But I think it's kind of letting them know what's going on and you know where they can help you by getting more information. I work with a range of... I usually work with Tableau developers and business analysts and then we have some project managers around doing something important as well and I think kind of helping them to get you access to the users is probably one of the most beneficial things that they can do, and just kind of saying "all right, well if I can't actually speak to the users then we might come into this problem, this problem, this problem later on". So it's probably advisable for them to try and front load that, or at least to get it in the diaries because if you're working with senior people they're impossible to pin down, and actually get them to commit the time to you so even just having a conversation about what do you do all day is quite useful. I hope I answered that question, thanks Michelle.

09:33—Maybe we have time for maybe just one more. I think someone was curious about the comment you made about colour theory in your introduction perhaps, so they're curious about how do you balance including the brand colours and style of the clients with visual best practice taking into account colour theory?

09:50—Grey. Lots of grey. Yeah brand colours are horrendous for data viz in nearly all situations, but I think generally trying to minimise the amount of colour that you use on screen, as Ana said, I think kind of using fewer rather than more colours is good for this, and yeah just grey it up. Everything grey and then you add colour, rather than the other way around I think. Use colour to draw focus. But yeah colour theory is mind-blowing... I don't know how people manage that.


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