Keep Calm and Visualize On

data visualization keep calm

2013 has arrived and I have found myself, as many do, reflecting on the past year and evaluating. My intention was to post more on data visualization and user experience but it hasn’t been easy. Blogging has been a new venture for me, and still is, but I find with all that the past year has shown in terms of data vis and UX that 2013 will be a big year for both fields. It is more important than ever for me to blog about these topics and I will do so with a look back at my trip to the UK through the eyes of a data vis and UX geek and bring some insights into what 2013 may bring.

Late summer my girlfriend and I traveled to the UK and Poland to visit our families and friends. My girlfriend was the tour guide in the UK since she lived there in the past. We started in London and visited all sorts of places, thanks in part to Google Transit, which made it easy to take buses and see the actual city instead of traveling via the underground tube. She admitted that this trip she had seen more of London then her whole time living there since we used buses more than the tube. With just a prepaid SIM card and a smart phone we were using the transit system better than some Londoners could! We were there during the Paralympics and some buses were detoured due to events but we didn’t miss a beat since we could locate the next available stop while everyone else sat and waited for a bus that possibly would never come.

User experience has made our lives simple yet complicated

Google Transit UX screenshot

This experience while traveling made me think about what traveling was like 10 years ago when GPS and Google Maps was non-existent in our daily lives. In the past, you would have to ask a local for directions. On this trip, I don’t remember asking anyone for directions.  We also used the rail system and traveled north of London without a single problem. We used an app for that as well which gave us train arrivals, departures and ability to purchase train tickets. UX plays a big part in creating these moments in our lives where something becomes fluid and we don’t even notice it until we’ve been reminded a time that we didn’t have such services.

In 2013, I believe we will see UX hit a new level where designers will focus more on the user and less on the experience. You may have heard the term “content over chrome” being used by UX professionals which is stating that the content will become key over the flashy animations and effects being used on apps and the web these days. Users are becoming accustomed to refined and professional designs but now they are craving content that drives the experience. They don’t want the mundane and frivolous but robust content that keeps them coming for more. Those that can conquer this will see great success with user adoption and more importantly user retention!

The ease of creating data visualizations came around the time of the first personal computer and since then creating a bar graph is just a few clicks and taps of the keyboard. That wasn’t always the case and nothing brings that more to the point then a visit to the Churchill War Rooms under Whitehall in London.

Graphs in Churchill War Rooms London

Hand drawn graphs displayed in the Churchill War Rooms

We visited the War Rooms based on my interest in World War 2 and through the rooms and hallways of the bunker, that remain unchanged since the war, I came across hand drawn graphs and charts displaying all sorts of wartime statistics. On the walls were bar and stacked bar graphs containing a plethora of information including: munition supplies, oil production, weight of bombs dropped, casualties, populations, military size. All were carefully drawn by hand for those in charge to be able know the facts without reading tables of numbers in a time where it meant the rise or fall of a nation.

Never forget the basics

Weight of bombs dropped in WW2

Weight of bombs dropped in WW2

That’s when it dawned on me how easy we have it when it comes to creating the data visualizations you see today and that we hardly have any excuse to muck it up when we do the simple charts and graphs we all know well. We may not be at war as those in the War Rooms were in the 1940s, but in many situations, it is critical for us to get data visualizations right for our intended audiences. Infographics come to mind when thinking of data visualizations that can go either way of informing or misinforming audiences. We sometimes get too caught up on the creative part of infographics and forget the essentials like legends and labels and assume that the audience will be able to decipher the use of little cute icons to separate your categories. Let’s get it right before you glitz it up!

Data is key and quality data is prime

The field of data visualizations is still in its infancy and there are new areas being blazed due to the technology and data we now have available. Open source datasets supplied by governments, agencies and even cities are allowing us to visualize things we could never imagine possible. This is an area where I’ve seen tons of growth in the past year and I see it continuing into the new year. However, one thing that is usually left to the end when you gain so much data is question it’s quality. What is the quality of the data? When you look at data visualizations does it inform you of the data quality? They may tell you where the data was sourced but we now need to start looking at the quality of our data that we present to the public. You may not have direct control over the quality but we can make sure we inform our audiences. I hope 2013 will show a lot of growth and innovation in this area.

To bring around the point of quality data, on our trip we made the pilgrimage to the water pump on Broadwick St (formerly Broad St) which still stands there but not for locals to collect water. It is a monument to Dr John Snow’s epidemiological work on finding the cause of the 1854 cholera outbreak. I won’t get into great detail, but Dr Snow got quality data which led him to find that cholera was water-borne and not air-borne as everyone thought at that time. You can read more about Dr Snow in my other blog post here. After we had visited a great pub called Queens Head and had some ales drawn from a hand pumped draft system we ventured over to Broadwick St and ran into the pump where it stands (not in its original location). It is a monument for Dr Snow’s perseverance and making a difference. We live in a different century and your goal may not be to save lives but we all strive in making a difference and I can’t wait to see what 2013 brings for UX and data visualizations!

Dr John Snow Water Pump monument on Broadwick St in Soho District

For those interested in more of the data visualizations from the Churchill War Rooms you can peruse the gallery below. Enjoy!

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