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It’s Time to Practice Decision Visualization

Data visualization, while super cool and powerful, half the battle is creating a nice visualization. I know that I’ve talked at length about data visualization, specifically trying to offer up tips and strategies. While well done visualizations help simplify complex data, creating a visualization that not only helps expresses complex data but also assists in the decision making process is a true winner.

I came across a recent post by Lee Feinberg, where he brings up the idea of “decision visualization”. Decision visualization in a nutshell is creating a visualization that not only easily conveys complex data, but also assists individuals in their decision making process. In his post, Lee argues that while data visualizations help simplify data, it’s only half the equation: someone still is forced into using that data to make a decision. Lee illustrates this with an example. Imagine that a portfolio manager is asked to decide between three products to continue to invest in. “You deliver the numbers with a concise visual, and your job is done – but is it?” According to Lee, “You’ve actually done all the easy work and left the hard work to the portfolio manager. She has to look at all the data and figure out the possible actions to take.” So if the visualization can help simplify the data, can’t it help with the difficult part: making the decision? Of course it can!

Having data visualizations help individuals arrive at a decision is an innate characteristic of all visuals –that’s why most are created to begin with. The challenge is that they are not normally designed with that specific objective in mind. Lee suggests that when creating visuals that will be used in a managers decision making processes, it’s important to understand the decisions being made. “You are not going to sit at your desk and dream up what decisions the manager care about. You are going to ask,” initiating the conversation between the designer and the recipient can’t be underestimated in decision visualization. Lee takes this a step further and offers up some questions to help kick start the conversation between designer and decision maker:

  1. What else do you involve in making these decision?
  2. What questions are you trying to answer from the reports?
  3. What signals do you look for to take action?

This conversation will help you understand how to craft your visualization and shift from creating a data visualization to a decision visualization.

So you think you’re now successfully creating awesome decision visuals, but how do you know for sure? “To reinforce your shift to decision-driven thinking, your deliverables (i.e. visuals) must also reflect a different approach. Your visualizations will draw people in, get them interested, and get them asking questions.” If you don’t receive questions asking for clarification or for better understanding, then it’s probably because you haven’t produced true decision visualization yet. Below is a good example that Lee provides to help show the transition from simple data visualization to decision visualization.

Poor vs Good Decision Visualization

The first graph does a good job of showing sales by product by month. Imagine that you have been asked to decide which of the three products (furniture, office supplies or technology) to invest in. With the first visualization that is not an easy task. However, after expressing that you are trying to decide which of the three to invest in you are given the second graph. Much easier decision. That’s the power of decision visualization.

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