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An Animated Discussion about Making Better Charts

We all love great charts.

Well, perhaps it's more accurate to say that we all like looking at great charts. Infographics and other fetching examples of visual display are passed around among researchers like irresistible candy-coated treats, and yet let's face it - most market research-related charts stink, providing limited information in a not-so-thoughtful or (dare to dream) artful format.

There are lots of reasons why our charts end up this way, and for sure I've contributed my share of the mediocrity. I realize that not every study has the immediacy, the intrigue, and the rich data of an event like the recent tsunami. I also know that often we're pressed for time and have limited tools at our disposal. But communication of results and actionability of results go hand in hand, and lamenting the evils of PowerPoint won't help us communicate better anytime soon. It's the coin of the realm, so we better make the most of it.

Can we discuss, then, how to do better with the resources we've got - how to take the lessons of Tufte, Minard, Rosling, or the "visualization celebrity" of your choice and, bit by bit, make them an accepted part of the average custom research project?

It's all part of a topic I care about a lot, and will write about more in the weeks to come in hopes of creating and sustaining a productive dialog among practitioners regarding how we can be more effective communicators - with respondents and with the end-users of our research.

Specifically today, I'm thinking about getting the most out of PowerPoint animation.

Data and analytic fluency has spread within client organizations, and as a result there's a greater tolerance for digesting more data simultaneously. Clutter is clutter, however, and at some point the information-to-white space ratio becomes uncomfortably skewed. When we present we commonly employ animation to lessen the visual load of having lots of data on screen all at once, while focusing the viewer's attention on the logic behind our argument - in short we use it to tell a better story.

But why wait for a presentation (which don't always come) to optimize telling of the story? Why doesn't the typical report leverage animation in the service of making stronger and more accessible arguments? Typically resistance comes along four fronts:

  • Vendors think clients won't want it. I could be (disastrously) wrong on this one but my guess is that clients want clear arguments, and if animation helps make those arguments than they'll appreciate its use. What's more research end-users are no different than other consumers in that they can't always predict what new things they will find useful until they get them in their hands.
  • Readers will get confused. Suppose it depends on how we define "readers," since most analyses are distributed and consumed electronically. It's not hard to establish a standard notation (e.g., "animated slide") to let the reviewer know he or she is looking at a dynamic page.
  • Who has the time? Things get tight, I know, but I'm not suggesting that every chart be dedicated to an intricate unfolding of results. We should be thinking about the display of results ahead of time anyway - use that planning to think about the key spots within your report where you should try to say more on one page, with the help of animation.
  • Uh-oh... I fear "animation abuse." Ok we've all been in meetings where someone took animation and ran with it, (and ran with it, and ran with it...) but that's bad communication as much as using no animation can be. As with formatting, keep it simple. Imagine how much more you could do with something as simple as three related survey questions and "enter; fade".

I look forward to hearing about people's adventures in everyday animation, and to more discussion about making better market research charts. Best of luck!

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Guest Sunday, 15 December 2019

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