It’s So Simple, Anyone Can Use It!

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billymaysI dig infomercials.  Whether it’s Tony Little, Billy Mays (R.I.P.), the Sham Wow guy, or the Godfather — Ron Popeil, I’ve always been intrigued by their unabashed shamelessness in the face of overt consumerism.  As I think back to the great infomercials of the past, though, I draw a strong parallel between what these pitchmen/women do and what we do in the data & visualization space.  That parallel is around simplicity.

The good infomercials realize that there needs to be a concise takeaway from the product demonstration:

  • Ginsu knife: can cut a tin can and a tomato
  • Matthew Lesko: the government is giving away free money
  • Veg-o-Matic: it slices, it dices, it juliennes


Nevermind the veracity of the statements (or the relevance…how often does one need to julienne vegetables?).  The point is that the message came across in a clear and simple manner.  This is how we like to treat visualizations.

I’m an data nerd…no two ways about it.  I use an app to track the races I run and then graph my pace so I can relive the excruciating pain.  I have a Wifi-enabled scale…because writing my weight down on paper adds too much friction to the process.  That being said, I know that we can’t assume everyone wants the same level of data detail.  Because people have competing priorities, a good chart needs to convey a simple message:

  • The line is trending down…the thing you are looking at is getting worse
  • See this spike…that something you should dig in to
  • All sections are green…things are probably OK


That’s about the level of fidelity one should expect from a basic chart.  There are always cases where one can cram many layers of information into a single chart.  However, that’s likely the exception, not the rule.  The rule is something more like this.

Good graphics, logical color schemes, and meaningful ratios are all hallmarks of a good visualization (take a look at Highcharts…a good example of a tool that oozes simplicity).  But spinny things, shiny graphics, fourteen levels of drill down, and mathematical symbols are usually not necessary.  Here’s the litmus test: take a step back from the chart you’re looking at.  Look away, pause, and then look back at it.  Now ask yourself, “what’s the one main takeaway from this chart?”  If you have to think for more than 5 seconds about how to answer that question, there’s a chance that it missed its mark.  See…it really IS that simple!


P.S.  Off topic: since I mentioned infomercials, have you seen the latest Life Alert ad?  We all know the “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up” meme, but this latest ad throws a couple pounds of creepy into the mix.  Thanks for going all American Horror Story on us, Life Alert.

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