Death by Infographic! Why Businesses Need Good Information, Analysis and Data

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You’ve all seen them. Maybe you’ve posted a couple to your LinkedIn and Facebook profiles or your Twitter feed. Yes, it’s the Infographic. The concept of the infographic has been around for decades, but have proliferated, to the point of ubiquity, since the rise of social media, where grabbing a readers attention and keeping it, may only take seconds. Once only for the business leaders, infographics have a wide audience, and acceptance, across different segments of populations. Access to data has been democratized.

Infographics are a type of visual representation of data, information or knowledge. It is supposed to show this information in a way that is quick and simple to interpret, and utilize the ability of individuals to see patterns and trends visually in the data, and therefore improve the cognition and awareness of the viewer. Modern use of visual data representation grew out of Tufte’s ground breaking book, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information” in 1983. We may blame Tufte for the birth of the modern infographic, but Twitter, Facebook and Pinterest is responsible for it becoming overwhelming.

*Some more of Tufte’s work can be found here.

However, merely because of their popularity, doesn’t mean they are right or relevant to today’s complex business environment. Some infographics over simplify an issue, and sometimes this is done to sway an audience, with a particular angle on how the data is interpreted by the viewer. Infographics can very useful, so there is a utility and place for them, but I would caution relying on infographics for use in business plans, presentations, and for understanding complex insights. Businesses, especially small businesses, need to navigate the business environment, and may find themselves lacking, with few problems solved, and more questions about their markets.

And this is not to mention the design-deficiencies in most of the representations I’ve seen used by businesses – many crammed with data in vertical format, and with poor clip art and drawings – many are just plain pointless, or satisfy ‘link-craving’ and ‘site-traffic’ for SEO marketers. Here at Design You Way they have a great blog post that elucidates the visualization problems bad infographics can project.

This is certainly not a case against data visualization: no one wants to read a pile of words and there is nothing wrong with line charts, but a mix of good analysis (interpretation) and validating the case (argument) made by the graphic should be essential elements if data is needed beyond the snapshot…

…But we’ll get to that in a sec.

I have seen numerous infographics used in business planning and commercialization documents over the last three years. Many of these infographics didn’t tell the reader how a particular set of data was going to improve the bottom line of the business, or create a business case. In fact many infographics borrowed or created by small businesses force the business owner into acceptance of the data at face value or push them to a conclusion which may be an assumption (post hoc ergo propter hoc and correlation does not imply causality). Many businesses adopt “the-data-speaks-for-itself” argument, without telling the reader, which could be an important investor, how the data will grow their business.

Look at this for 10 seconds…

“I somehow feel smarter and very dumb at the same time. My head hurts” 

They don’t need to be complex, in fact they can be very simple (have you heard of the data-to-ink ratio? Neither had I until a year ago! – see gif image below). They just have to relate to your business case and story.

Most of the data I use in reports for my clients are done with the purpose of presenting the data I have for them in a dispassionate way, eliminating as much bias as possible, and allowing them to decide their best course of action based on the current situation of the market. markets don’t lie. I use pie and line charts, Gantt charts, and other simple graphs to show data. It becomes cumbersome, when together with 40-some-odd pages of analysis is distilled along with it, to interpret that data and graphs – anything further would be outside the scope of my reporting. To overcome this, businesses often put this data into infographics for charting on presentations and the like.

I often draw conclusions based on this data, but I also make suggestions, possible next steps and give recommendations. It is reasoned and considered so that they can make the best decisions based on the information at hand – I don’t try to sway them to a viewpoint as that can often be counter-productive to a businesses best interests: managing risk in the marketplace.

I have seen too many businesses utilize data visualization that is borrowed from a website or DIY. I’m not a graphic designer, but I know some good ones and if businesses want to go the infographic route, I’d be happy to put them in touch with a great graphic designer. Businesses should be looking to create in their visual designs, their brand and their business model, and it should stand out. Businesses should be looking at data as part of their brand, and investing in good research and the tools to highlight that information – even if it is presented in infographic format. If going the infographic route, it should be concise and back up the business case. Therefore, utilizing the services of a designer that is able to present the data in your business plans and presentations is an investment. I can’t stress this enough. If the aim is to draw viewership, then it needs to have content that reinforces the business case and differentiates you from your competitors – a business case created though good research, competitive analysis and data points.

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