I was very fortunate recently to get a place on a four day data visualisation training course with Stephen Few, The training was hosted in London which meant long days commuting but it is not often you get to learn from someone so respected in their field.
Now I have been in this field for a while now and I like to think I know a bit so I was not too sure how much new stuff I was going to get from the course, I have used his books in the past as well as those by Edward Tufte so I have done my research.
The course was split into chunks based on three of his books:
Day 1 &2 – Show me the numbers
Day 3 – Information dashboard design
Day 4 – Now you see it
We were advised not to be too concerned about taking notes as the slides and notes would be sent after the course and he wanted us to take in what he was saying and question as we went along.
We merrily went through the key areas reviewing examples as we went with challenges back and forth between the trainers and the trainees. This took up most of our time on the course – it didn’t feel like it was the just the content from the books regurgitated but rather us just critiquing examples and having discussions (sometimes heated) whilst we were brought round to his way of thinking.
Now it may not surprise you to know but:
- Pie charts are not a good way of displaying data – 3D ones are even worse
- If it is a trend over time then its a line chart
- For most other scenarios its a good old bar chart
Now this I already knew so what did I get from the course outside this?
The reasons why!
What we were doing throughout most of the course was getting from Stephen the reasons why the points he was making were true. This was not delivered in a bullet point list but by us reviewing examples and discovering for ourselves the true reasons for why one thing is more effective than the other. It was a collection of small light bulb moments that clarified the existing thinking.
Stephen kept using the phrase
“I want you to be comfortable with it”
which makes perfect sense because once you are comfortable with it and understand naturally the why you can easily adapt your understanding to the situation.
So what next?
Following on from the training I will be looking to embed this more in our organisation.
We already have a collective review of products before they are released which involves discussion around the merits of the work and of what it is trying to achieve and I will look to bring a bit more of the why into things.
Stephen talked about when you do that kind of review having two dashboards being reviewed at the same time. They do not need to be covering the same topic but having a comparison enables their strengths and weaknesses to be exposed far clearer.
Lastly I will take a little time each meeting to talk about the WHY rather than just:
Dave doesn’t like pie charts
I hope that was useful