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Field Notes: Data Visualization Conference

| By Phil Charron

In the wake of several large-scale data visualization projects, I decided to see how other large organizations were tackling the same challenges by attending The Innovation Enterprise Data Visualization Summit last week. Rather than a play-by-play, I thought I’d give some of my general insights about Data Viz, further inspired by the experience:

Data Visualization is Not New

Something we need to remind ourselves repeatedly in this industry is that a lot of what we do is not new, it’s just been renamed. A few presenters reminded us of this fact by pulling out Charles Joseph Minard’s image of Napoleon’s March on Moscow from 1812 (a print of which hangs prominently in one of our meeting rooms) and John Snow’s Cholera Outbreak map from 1854. These are great pieces of Data Viz history, but I’d say it’s safe to leave those images out of your next data viz presentation. Not that they’re irrelevant, I just feel like you’re preaching to the choir.

Minard's Greatest Hit, c.1869

Minard’s Greatest Hit, c.1869

What is new is the ability to present highly manipulable, interactive visualizations to the user. In the early days, we’d either render images manually or employ expensive server-based tools to do it and then shoot them down to your computer. If you wanted to see it in a slightly different format, well, that required a lot of timely re-rendering. Your other option was to download data and play with it in Excel.

Today, we send well-formed data to your machine and let you play with the visualizations. This introduces serious potential usability issues, as it does any time we give more control to users. The trick is to give them that control but prevent them from shooting themselves in the foot. Krystal St. Julien from ModCloth led a great discussion on how their analytics group is doing just that.

The Sexiest Thing To Do With Data

Above all else, a clear, understandable visualization is always your goal. At two different sessions last week, presenters apologized for using simple graph types rather than something more provocative or sexy. The interesting thing was that the graphs up on the screen clearly conveyed the data. A line chart is almost always the best way to show a trend over time for a single metric, so we need to stop apologizing for it. Spend your time making it as clear and understandable as possible. To do this, find visual designers whose work demonstrates a clean, minimalist approach.

Again, this isn’t new. Dieter Rams reminded us years ago that good design makes a product understandable, is unobtrusive, and is as little design as possible. Stephen Few gives us similar advice for designing data visualizations and dashboards: as users get more control over the data visualizations they want, we’ll need to be more conscious about helping them help themselves. We can’t always stop them from making mistakes, but we should create tools that guide them well.

Data Scientists Are The Real Deal

Here’s what I learned above all else: companies that are serious about making data-driven decisions hire data scientists. These are folks with a strong background in statistics, analytics and computer science. It’s been years since my last stats class, so I can’t tell a Chi-square from a Gamma distribution, but they can. That’s why designers need data scientists.

Data scientists need skilled experience designers too. Our role is to work with them on one common goal: let the data tell the story. This isn’t an easy task, especially when you’re dealing with massive stores of data. How do data scientists make the world a better place? Here are a few examples:

Mohan Dorairaj at eBay analyzes ridiculously large sets of user data to constantly improve the eBay user experience.

Brian Wilt and the Jawbone UP device are currently running the world’s largest sleep study. Y’know what single event has the worst impact on sleep in the US? Daylight Savings Time. They built Up Coffee in three months. After three days of using it, I cut back on caffeine by 50%.

Michael Conover at LinkedIn digs through analytics for many reasons, one of which is to identify behavior patterns of spammers and recruiters so your LinkedIn experience can be more about networking and making connections than fending off unwanted solicitations.

Folks like Ahmad Yaghoobi at Boeing study bird strikes to protect the lives of people in their planes.

Clayton Clouse helps folks at FedEx identify previously unseen patterns in package delivery times so you get your stuff faster.

And while not a data scientist, Heidi Roller over at Fox Sports Interactive embodies the need to fuse design and data. She uses her storytelling background every day as she converts dense sports data into visual stories.

Some of Heidi's Handiwork at Fox Sports Interactive

Some of Heidi’s Handiwork at Fox Sports Interactive

Making The Case For UX (To Non-Designers)

| By Russ Starke

Recently a friend of ours reached out and asked us for some high level information around Experience Design that he could share with some of his non-design colleagues and contacts. Basically he asked:

“What are some things that you’ve been seeing lately that make the case for engaging with a company like yours, and stuff that in general we should just be keeping an eye on? Oh, and how about some info around “mobile”, too?”

I whipped up this quick response, and it was promptly suggested that it might be a helpful blog post…and so, voilà! By no means exhaustive, but maybe a few points that’ll be helpful in communicating why user experience (UX) is more important than ever.

Great UX Is A Market Differentiator

There’s hard evidence in the marketplace showing small, nimble organizations with carefully thought out user/customer experiences (and surprisingly often, not much under the hood) can seriously challenge large companies with well-known brands, years worth of data, and strong/real infrastructure but no recent investment in a world-class user experience (the story, for example—though they had plenty under the hood). More and more, companies are realizing that one of the most important differentiators…and maybe the most important…is a great customer experience; one that is intuitive, modern, consistently accessible and useful across devices, and designed with the specific attributes of the target audience in mind.

Design Thinking Can Drive Novel Approaches

UX, or more specifically, Design Thinking, provides a different “lens” through which to view and address challenges—often allowing organizations to arrive at solutions that wouldn’t (or couldn’t) be reached using any other method. It’s an evidence-based framework that roots out and carefully balances user/customer/employee needs/wants/expectations with business drivers and goals, and has been proven to result in unique and innovative (check off all of these words on your buzzword bingo card) approaches.

The Sum Experience Is Greater Than The Parts

Comprehensive experience design is about taking a hard look at every possible touchpoint between a customer/user and your brand, and considering that most customers will move between those touchpoints depending on the time of day, their location, the particular goals, etc.  This means that websites, mobile apps, storefronts, phone lines, and whatever else is out there are all just conduits for interacting with the greater entity of the “brand”, and the collective experience of interacting across all of those touchpoints is what ultimately adds up to how customers feel about that brand (the total experience). This is what will drive loyalty (or the lack of it) and the willingness of customers to become net promoters. To ensure a lasting positive impression, all interactions should feel consistent, coherent, and seamless: but often this isn’t the case, with different departments owning different channels and resulting in experiences that feel fractured, contradictory, and incomplete.

The Nature Of “Competition” Is Changing

When deciding to create anything new (a website, functionality on a website, a mobile app, etc.), it means considering the entire ecosystem into which that asset is being launched; this means other offerings from the organization providing it, as well as understanding the user who will be introducing it into his/her life (where it will compete with MANY other things for their time, attention, and money). Essentially, competition becomes any other thing in a person’s life vying for these valuable (and increasingly limited) resources, not just rival companies with a similar market offering.

The Right Strategy Always Depends (On Research)

When it comes to website/mobile usage, the best way to make a strategy decision is to not go by general research but to carefully consider the unique and specific workflows and use cases of your target audience. Yes, mobile usage is increasing in general, but certain tasks will still be performed on a desktop browser for the foreseeable future (heavy data input, administration functions, etc.). There are a lot of high level phrases thrown around as edicts (mobile first, responsive web design, gamification, flat design, etc.), but it always depends on smart and focused research, not a knee-jerk “everyone says we should do X, so we should do it that way.” Many of the success stories we admire followed this path to innovation (i.e. Netflix’s initial strategy for entering a crowded marketplace: differentiating by exploiting what had been termed a “dead” vehicle—the U.S. Postal Service, and decimating their competition in a few short years).

Sure, we could go a lot deeper on any of these, but 1) then certain folks might start glazing over and 2) these seem to be the thoughts that are resonating most deeply with those just dipping their intellectual toe into the UX water as of late. C’mon in, the water is warmer than you think—but it’s a BIG pool…be sure to reach out to us when you want to go exploring in the deep end!

User Experience Is Not Just About “Screens”

| By Brian Alexandrowicz

What do most people picture when they hear the phrase “User Experience”? If their mind doesn’t completely draw a blank, they might think about websites or mobile apps, or maybe even desktop software. While true, there’s an entire side to it that goes beyond screens. UX design involves creating a holistic experience that accounts for people’s emotions, thoughts, and desires in their physical and digital worlds.


Great holistic experiences are everywhere, many of them needing no help from “screens” (Credit: Nicholas A. Tonelli)

I recently had a series of interactions with a company’s customer service department that were less than ideal. While professional and courteous, I never felt like anyone was trying to genuinely empathize or add some humanity to the conversations; I felt like a name in a system, not a human being. In a world where things are produced and consumed on a massive scale, feeling lost in the crowd creates a disconnect between the business (brand) and its users.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, a bad customer experience not only frustrates your target audience, but also hurts your bottom line: research shows around 71% of customers end a business relationship due to poor service, and the cost of that lost relationship has an estimated average of around $289 per customer annually (or $83M).

On the other end of the spectrum, the oft-cited Zappos shows us how going out of your way to create a great experience can lead to better business and better relationships with your clients. They operate on the fundamental assumption that a good experience goes beyond their website and their product: it encompasses everything, including the human interactions that can either make or break a relationship with a company. Not reading from a script adds humanity and authentic human interaction that people often crave when dealing with a business.

“Nothing can replace the human touch especially when that person is empowered to go to just about any lengths to help the customer. They understand that the customer experience is not singular, but it’s in each of those singular moments when interacting with the customer that loyalty is forged or lost.” – Barry Glassman (Forbes)

The proof is in the pudding: they do around $1 billion in revenue each year, and nearly 75% of their business is from repeat customers. The kicker? They also spend very little on advertising. Zappos has put the customer experience first, and they’ve created an extremely successful business as a result.

“Zappos is a customer service company that just happens to sell shoes.” – Tony Hsieh, Zappos CEO

We’re not selling shoes here at Think Brownstone, but we are crafting thoughtful and innovative solutions to problems. We take the time to get to know all of our clients on a personal level and understand what they want, feel, and think. We’re about designing the best experience for our clients’ customers and/or employees while at the same time providing the best possible experience for our clients themselves—that’s what will lead to stronger relationships, repeat business, and making us all look like heroes. In that formula, screens are integral, but make no mistake: they’re only one part of a much bigger picture.