How Research-Driven Organizations Become Thought Leaders

Data Viz & the Single Question

I hate almost all infographics. (Those often cute, overproduced, have-to-pinch-and-scroll-around-to-see-everything graphic narratives that are really made for taping to a wall, not consuming quickly on your phone.)

Infographics usually try to show everything, or almost everything, about something. And thus I remember nothing.

I prefer data visualizations.

Data viz — when it flows from and answers a single question — is one of the best ways to give your audience immediate, memorable insight:

Or two insights, in this case:

1) The percentage of coal in the UK energy mix has dwindled to nearly nothing.

2) What’s taken its place? Natural gas, for the most part.

You need to ask the question first, however — not illustrate findings and hope that something emerges that you can point out.

For example: Does current rhetoric match the facts?

In the case of widening wealth inequality in the United States over the last 30 years, yes. (But perhaps not as much as some current rhetoric would have it. Not taking a position here on the inequality by pointing that out.)

Are the public and the media wrong about something?

Why did a trend really change?

Whatever triggered the decline in student visas, especially from China, it wasn’t entirely because of a certain new administration…

Visualizations that flow from single questions can have satori power. They reveal. They tell a story in two seconds. They can be the drop-mic moment in any discussion.

And since there are so many free and cheap data viz tools available, there is little excuse for researchers and research communicators not to produce them. (One of my clients likes Tableau, for example.)

But if you’re trying to work backwards from a figure you put in your paper to a single-pointed data viz, start over. Start instead with the question you want to illustrate and the answer you want non-experts to see.

Nathan Yau of FlowingData writes a wonderfully comprehensive post (“Ask the Question, Visualize the Answer”) about how the choice of that question dictates the kind of data viz you will use.

If you’re not yet comfortable with this single-question idiom, study these resources:

Takeaway: Life is complex, you say. As a researcher, I need to show that complexity.

But we — your non-expert audience — don’t want all that complexity. We want the most important thing. The thing we will remember and act on.

Find that and give it to us.