Evaluating the Impact of Data Visualization

Why data visualization is increasingly perceived by stakeholders at all levels of the enterprise as a high-value investment.

According to a new Best Practices report from TDWI Research, adoption of data visualization technologies is growing by leaps and bounds.

Even so, write industry veterans Wayne Eckerson and Mark Hammond, most users continue to interact with data via static tables: nearly two-thirds (65 percent) of users consume data primarily in the context of tables and text versus 35 percent who interact chiefly with visual charts or graphs, according to a companion survey conducted by TDWI Research.

"Although some data is better suited to non-visual rendering, it's clear that old habits die hard," write Eckerson and Hammond in Visual Reporting and Analysis: Old Habits Die Hard, the latest installment in TDWI Research's Best Practices series. What's surprising, the duo notes, is that most shops recognize that static text probably isn't the best way to present -- to say nothing of consume -- many kinds of information, yet they continue to do so anyway.

As Eckerson and Hammond note, it's a case of old habits dying hard. Very hard.

"Many executives and managers, for example, have run operations for years using text-based budgets and plans created in Excel," they write. "[B]usiness analysts, who are generally Excel jockeys, are often more comfortable with grids of data because that is how they've always interfaced with information."

Even so, one out of three -- or 35 percent -- is a good start.

Visual analysis isn't necessarily warranted in all cases, of course. Eckerson and Hammond recount the experience of Bruce Yen, director of business intelligence (BI) with Guess Inc., a prominent designer and manufacturer of clothing. "We showed bar charts on how sales broke down by department, but some users said they could simply look at the numbers and get the same answer," Yen told the duo. "Maybe the data and analysis wasn't so complex that it needed a bar chart or some other type of visualization."

Insufficient complexity is just one barrier (or -- as in Yen's example -- reasonable objection) to the use of data visualization.

In many cases, visual interfaces suffer from poor design -- e.g., interfaces that frustrate or stymie users (e.g., by forcing them to work harder to get at information in context) -- or what Eckerson and Hammond call "visual overload."

Over time, users tend to prefer to expose more data via their visual interfaces; initially -- that is, when they're first introduced to a tool -- they're intimidated by too much data. It's best to start small and introduce additional features or functionality piecemeal -- or, better still, to permit users to serve themselves. "Visualization tools that expose data and functionality on demand will have higher rates of adoption among users," the authors explain.

In practice, Eckerson and Hammond note, data visualization is perceived as a high-value technology investment. For example, nearly three-quarters (74 percent) of survey respondents assessed the impact of data visualization on business insight as "very high" or "high." Less than one quarter (23 percent) judged it "moderate."

Similarly, more than two-thirds (67 percent) of respondents said that data visualization has had a "very high" impact on user productivity. An additional 30 percent described its impact as "moderate;" just three percent put it at "low/very low."

"[D]ata visualization significantly improves business insights and user productivity (that is, accelerates time to insight) and increases user adoption of BI tools," according to the report. "These benefits help explain the growing popularity of data visualization in corporate environments."

Finally, visualization can help sell a solution, too. Although 70 percent of respondents said that data visualization had had a "very high" or "high" impact on past dashboard purchases, nearly four out of five (79 percent) expected it to have a similar impact on future purchases. "Once data visualization gains a beachhead in an organization and BI managers see the impact it has on user insights and productivity, its influence spreads wide and far," they write.