The Visual Design Process


I have purposely screamed that question in homage to all those Senior Executives and Managers who have been presented with yet another aggressively colourful table of numbers that they are expected to analyze and interpret for themselves.  I apologize for my fellow analysts for their ignorance and inability to provide you with insight and information.  I use the term ignorance in its truest form; to be uninformed or in a state of unawareness - not stupid.

Sadly, or ironically, these unwise acts of reporting are mostly coming from Business Intelligence departments.  It's not their fault, it's their training.  For years they have been tasked with getting the data into a manageable format - mountains of data - dirty data - and from disparate, incongruent, grubby systems.  They've been expected to make a silk purse of a sow's ear.  And they've been expected to do it as fast, efficiently and cheaply (stop laughing), as possible. Hence, the engineering development process that squashes inspiration and creativity.  You asked the monkey's to build the zoo and they built a great zoo that any monkey would love.

I was recently asked to present Tableau to some folks in our IT department (in exchange for a presentation on their work with Hadoop).  I showed them some examples of our current reports.  Later, the manager contacted me asking if I thought visual design was something that could be learned.  Tough question.  I used to think yes, by anyone.  But lately I've come to realize that it can be taught, but that doesn't mean it can be learned by everyone.  It's like everything else.  I was taught chemistry, and while I passed it, I never learned it.  Given the proclivity of people drawn to BI or IT for process, I'm not so sure that there will be many with the spirit for design and storytelling.

I recently came across this slide presentation by Andy Kirk of VisualisingData and I think it's perhaps the best how-to of the process I've ever seen.  It's the best, because not only does he address data analysis and principles of perception, but also the most important reason for making a report:  how to tell a story with data.

Beware, there's no wire frames, no project management process - it's absolute agility!  I'm very lucky in that this is the process I've been allowed to follow.  It takes a brave BI manager to allow an analyst to break from the scrum and I've got one of the best.  That's not to say that I design in a bubble.  Once I've got a straw dog built, the whole team gets together and works it into a masterpiece.  But instead of 6 months, a very complicated dashboard can be designed/built, and delivered in 6 days with Tableau.

I'm putting Andy's presentation into this post so that I can easily refer to it quickly myself, because no matter how many dashboard reports I've built, I still get stuck (analysis paralysis) and this presentation helps me through those stuck points.  Thank-you Andy!