Thursday, June 27, 2013

more public workshops + interview

I recently conducted my first public workshop in DC, where individuals could register to attend. The content was similar to that which I cover in a typical custom workshop for an organization, but with more industry agnostic examples and public data, reports, and visuals for the interactive pieces.

Leading up to the workshop, I thought my first might also be my last. Setting up a workshop means dealing with a lot of logistics (finding and securing the venue, setting up a way for people to pay, providing details to people as they register) - I basically play event planner on top of subject matter expert and content provider (and while the former is not my core skill set, I do find that my control-freak nature and attention to detail serve me well!). This all felt like a lot to take on. During the session, however, my attitude totally changed. There is something magical about people coming together, interested in learning. It more than made up for any logistics tedium. I simply love teaching people to be better storytellers with data. An eager audience like this is my version of bliss.

That said, I'm happy to announce upcoming public workshops in San Francisco and Chicago. For more details and to register, click here.

So you don't only get my viewpoint on how the session went, here's a snippet from one of the participants:
"It's obvious Cole knows what she's talking about, that she's studied the theory and applied it in the real world. The workshop itself is fine tuned and Cole is ready to answer any questions. It's a pleasure to learn from someone so knowledgeable."
 - Francis Gagnon, Business Intelligence Officer at IFC and author of the blog Visual Rhetoric (12/13 update: Francis' new site is VoilĂ )
On a related note, Francis reached out to me after the session for an interview for his blog; you can view the interview here on Google, what businesses need and what's hard to unlearn.

I hope to see you at one of my workshops soon!

Thursday, June 20, 2013

the slideument

A common question has come up in several of my recent workshops: what should I do when the document I'm creating is meant to be used both as a written report and as part of a live presentation?

In an idea world, this situation would never arise. Rather, you would prepare two distinct deliverables:
  1. A written report, where you can get away with denser content and rely more heavily on things like written words and an appendix to make sure the necessary context and explanation are present for your audience.
  2. A presentation, where slides are much less dense, font is never smaller than 16-point, and the speaker is able to verbally provide the necessary information so it need not all be physically written down.
In reality, this rarely happens. Time and other constraints lead us to create something that is meant to be a sort of mesh of these two things: the slideument.* 
*I can't take credit for this mashup, but rather must give it to Nancy Duarte, who discusses the slideument in her book, slide:ology.

So the question remains: if slideuments are the reality, what should we do? In this post, we'll take a look at some of the challenges this presents as well as some strategies for overcoming them.

The crux of the challenge is: the report needs to be able to stand on its own without a presenter there to explain it. But if you put the dense slide that meets this first need in front of your audience, you lose them immediately because they turn their attention to trying to understand what you've put in front of them and stop listening to you. Or worse yet, they see that what you've put in front of them looks overwhelming, so they tune both it and you out and turn their attention to something else altogether. In either case, you've lost some of your audience and thus your ability to communicate effectively.

One solution I'll propose is to maintain the density of information (to ensure an audience who is consuming this info on their own has the details necessary to do so) and use animation in your presentation software to enable to presenter to focus on just one piece of the visual at a time, while simultaneously ensuring that's where the audience's attention will be focused as well. In this way, we are able to lead our live audience through the pieces and communicate effectively to those digesting the information later with the written report.

Let's look at an example. Imagine that I want to show an overview of my organization's social media followers (assume this is context that sets up the interesting story that we aim to tell in the rest of the presentation/report). Imagine also that I've been given the constraint of a single slide to do this. My slide might look something like this:

While this level of detail might be fine to have on a single page of a report that someone looks at on their computer screen or on a printed page, it can be overwhelming when you put it up on the big screen. There's a lot to take in, so if you show it all at once, some in your audience may tune out entirely, while others will busy themselves reading through what they are looking at (and unfortunately, when they do this it means they've stopped listening to you).

One way we can prevent this is by only showing a single element of the page at a time. Tactically, you can do this either by having elements of the page appear and disappear or covering up elements on the page with white (either solid or semi-transparent) boxes and using animation in your presentation software to only show one item at a time. So perhaps you flash up the full slide as you tell your audience you are going to talk them through what they are looking at, piece by piece. First, focus on the membership trend over time:

When your audience can only see one element on the page, their attention will be on it and on you. After you've talked through the membership trend, you could shift to the next element: who the members are.

At this point, you could even layer on some preattentive attributes, like color, to draw your audience to a specific part of the element and talk about what's interesting there.

(Yes, the font is tiny; if you're there to explain why the blue part is interesting, perhaps the supporting text at the very bottom is best left as part of the report version and never presented). Then you could step through the remaining elements in the same manner, one by one, explaining and pausing to point out the interesting aspects of each.

Sure, it would be better if you could give each of these elements their own slide. But in the scenario where that isn't possible, perhaps you'll find these tricks helpful.

You can download the PowerPoint here. I've included a version where the graphs appear/disappear directly, as well as one that leverages transparent boxes to direct the audience's focus to a single element at a time.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

data visualization: a reflection of personal taste?

When baby Avery took a slightly longer than expected nap earlier today, I found myself able to escape to one of my favorite spaces: the lounge chair on the patio in the sun with a copy of Dwell magazine.

I find inspiration in the design of physical things: spaces, furniture, gadgets. There was a paragraph in one of the articles I was reading that gave me pause -
"But there is a clear difference between the thoughtful selection of furnishings and the heedless accumulation of 'stuff.' Good furniture at its best is the intersection of art, craft, and industry. The 'right' pieces address the needs dictated by our behavior and predilections. That's the lofty ideal. Of course, complications arise when one starts calculating the pesky realities of space, time, and budget. And so begins the tradeoff." 
- Many Voices, Many Rooms. Dwell Magazine, Vol 13, 6/13.

I can see many parallels between what editor-in-chief Amanda Dameron says here about furniture and good data visualization. I guess it all comes down to thoughtful design. But personal taste must enter the equation as well, right?

Upon reading this, I started thinking about how my own personal taste when it comes to physical items is reflected in the data visualizations I create and in my stylistic approach to data visualization in general. In the spaces in which I live and work, my tendency is mostly minimalist. The color palette tends to be neutral, with sparing, bright splashes of color. No one who is familiar with my data viz style will be surprised that the dominant color is blue.

When I started thinking about it, I realized that my design of the physical spaces in which I spend time has many similarities with the data visualizations I create. So interesting!

I'm curious: how does your personal style influence your data visualization? Leave a comment with your thoughts!

Painting pictured above is by Jill Henry, ceramic bowl by Heath Ceramics.