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The importance of pictures

A picture depicting a woman holding an umberella, with data raining down on her

A picture depicting a woman holding an umberella, with data raining down on herI’ve recently started reading “Back of the Napkin: Solving problems and selling ideas with pictures” by Dan Roam.  In the book, Roam tells an a story of an executive who had commissioned a detailed market survey, only to be presented with hundreds and hundreds of pages of graphs, text and data tables.  The raw data that returned may have been exactly what the executive had asked for, but it was virtually impenetrable.  Even the “executive summary” was sixty pages long, and the executive must have felt very lost in the detail.


Roam goes on to describe how he pulled out key patterns from the data and information in the report and presented it succinctly and visually.  This got me to thinking about how collecting and analysing data is really only useful if it can subsequently be presented in a way that the consumer, user or executive decision maker can actually understand.  In his book Roam has hit upon an issue that is all-to-common in business.  The availability of raw data makes it so tempting to show every column, every pie chart… to cut data from every conceivable angle and present it to the decision maker.  With the abundance of data we can create run scenarios, experiments and make deductions… but if we’re presenting this data in 197 slides, will anyone pay any attention?


The reality is they won’t.  I remember seeing an excellent blog post on the Presentation Zen site which demonstrates the importance of using the right visuals when presenting.  These points are even more important when trying to make sense of (or communicate) complex data.


When creating or planning a dashboard or a visualisation of a complex data-set, it’s important to first think of the dimensions of data that are relevant.  What things are you trying to show and what facts or information points are the report consumer or audience most interested in? What key points do you need to get across, and how can you best to show them.  What visualisations will make most sense to the person reading the report?  Additionally, how can it be made concise and precise.  How can we keep it simple, ensuring the most relevant facts are conveyed and understandable?


This kind of analytic and visualisation capability was perhaps once reserved for only the largest companies with huge IT budgets; there are solutions available now that are directly relevant for mid-size and smaller companies too.  It’s relevant for anyone who “crunches numbers”; presenting data in a more understandable, precise and concise way will lead to better understanding.  It’s of equal importance to anyone considering buying or building an analytic capability – it’s important to know that you’ll be able to get the types of visualisation you need.


In summary, pictures and visualisations aid understanding.  This better understanding helps to facilitate better decision making.  And with less 197 slide presentations, we save time too!


* PS – I’m really impressed by Dan Roam’s book so far, although I’m only about a quarter of the way through.  If you’ve read it, I’d love to hear your thoughts on it too. Please add a comment below.

This post was written as part of the IBM for Midsize Business program, which provides midsize businesses with the tools, expertise and solutions they need to become engines of a smarter planet. I’ve been compensated to contribute to this program, but the opinions expressed in this post are my own and don’t necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies or opinions.



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