When was the last time you debated whether Napoleon lost more troops during his advance on Moscow or its retreat? And whether Minard’s famous map skews the story by only showing the temperature for the return leg of the campaign? Unless you hang out with history buffs, you might not get into that kind of conversation. Alternatively, you could visit the Big Bang Data exhibition at Somerset House with Qlik’s innovation team, as I did recently.
Without wanting to be unfair to the art, the conversation proved to be far more interesting. That is hardly surprising given the company of a trio who are charged with thinking deeply about the types of data which businesses (and increasingly consumers) want to look into, how these could and should be presented, and where technology is taking business intelligence and data visualisation. Given that agenda, the exhibition was just a backdrop to their generous loan of their time.
Here are some indicators of the direction of travel which we talked about (some even derived from the art):
Move the person, not just the eyes
Large-scale displays are beginning to be more commonplace in modern office spaces. Somerset House featured a number of pieces of big data which used high-res TV screens to depict mapped data or creatively-interpreted information flows. Donald Farmer, VP of innovation and design for Qlik, made the point that when BI is shown on tablets, laptops or even standard projection screens, the audience reads it with their eyes. But if you put the same information up on the biggest monitor you can find, they move their heads (and even their bodies if you have access to a multi-screen set-up).
Now consider how movement plays into the way the human brain is hardwired to interpret patterns in the environment. If you can get the customers of your data visualisation to move physically in order to read the data and insights you are presenting, their thinking may achieve that sought-after fusion of left and right brain hemispheres, combining evidence and instinct in a whole new way.
Remember that beauty is not truth
A notable aspect of Big Bang Data is that creative designers are constantly seeking fresh new ways to depict the information they are tasked with interpreting. Exhibits range from charting a year’s worth of sexual activity (significantly using only the date, but not its duration!) through to a planetarium-style immersive presentation of financial markets. (For myself, none of the artists had made the final creative leap away from source data and into the truly artistic.)
James Richardson, Qlik’s business analytics strategist, warned against the human heuristic which makes us believe the more attractive something looks, the truer it must be. It’s a good trick to remember if you want to bury some bad news, but a flaw in many creative visualisations which are static. Being able to drill down into data is vital, once attention has been gained, even if that is via appealing colours or symmetry.
Rinse and repeat
Much of the data-derived art on show at Somerset House is effectively a one-off, making use of a single set of data to create a unique piece. Even the Felton Report - a ten-year annual report of one man’s life and an ur-document in the quantified self movement - rarely uses the same style of presentation twice. That is both the natural desire of graphic designers and one of their more annoying quirks.
As Qlik’s design strategist, Murray Grigo-McMahon, pointed out, familiarity is as important to interpreting a data visualisation as visual appeal is to getting it noticed in the first place. If every time a critical piece of business intelligence gets shown it requires the audience to learn how to read the display, that act of learning will soon get in the way of absorbing the insight. BI needs to find a way to be both engaging and sustainable, which doesn’t mean dazzling with a fresh design each time. That’s a tricky balancing trick for practitioners - and it’s what keeps this fascinating trio busy trying to work out how to pull it off.