Today's column is written by Bitsy Bentley, Director of Data Visualization at GfK.
Think graphic designer, and what comes to mind? PowerPoint decks? Infographics with cute cartoons? Yes, it all has its place, and can be powerful.
But as a designer, I want to do more than "design." For me, designing is not about making things pretty; it's about making them transparent. Because transparency is the number-one quality of successfully data driven organizations.
A data driven company is continually refreshed by new information. While the metrics-driven company can be run on a single number – conversions coming in the door, for example, or a net promoter score – the data driven one will bring together a variety of data points to learn why those conversions came in.
At a time when companies have the consumer data they always hoped for, but much of it sits inaccessible or underused on distant servers, designing relevant data experiences is the new must-have.
Rather than draw pictures, the data-driven designer tries to create very supple windows and frames. A window is transparent; but it also is located in a certain place, with a certain shape and a certain number of panes.
Know your audience
In this sense, transparency is about doing your homework. From a designer's perspective, you have to know your audience well enough to realize what they need and provide the right tools. Your experience should serve their recurring tasks, bringing them immediately face to face with the metrics that matter to them. In other words, it should be their personal, highly relevant window on the data.
Whether it's a dashboard, an infographic, or a sheet of paper with four numbers on it – the essential point is to provide the numbers that matter in a format that the user can understand and will feel comfortable with.
While consumer applications can be user-specific, commercial and enterprise software has to serve users of every type – tech savvy and phobic, text or visually oriented. In one company, people who like Kayak, Orbitz and Priceline all have to use the same tool.
Being truly data driven requires a higher degree of consideration than is typically given to enterprise software, providing different perspectives on the same data to serve specific users, roles and tasks. The sleeping bag for a trip to Everest is different than the one your 10-year-old son takes to the neighbor's house; but both are still sleeping bags.
Design around goals, not content
Letting the data you have at hand dictate the parameters of your interface means that you will never get beyond your current mindset. That's why it is essential to design around your larger goals, working backwards. If the key elements of your interface are responding to key business needs, and not to the data itself, then new insight is possible. Trend analysis, for example, is a common goal through all levels of an organization; but there are interactive specifics that happen at different levels. You might want to look at trends in sales and satisfaction together, or trends in brand perception in the context of ad campaigns. Even better would be access to sales data, so that you can have advertising, marketing and purchase data on the same screen.
Designing around goals naturally creates flexibility; a single interface can present satisfaction or brand perception. The patterns and methods we use for GfK's Digital Market Intelligence group are in many ways the same we use for a customer loyalty interface. And that's a good thing. The important thing is for your data to become a catalyst for action.
Build an escape hatch
The designer also has to give employees the ability to explore data and find new things. Creativity and flexibility are at the heart of data-driven companies, and that means having the freedom to roam. Help people feel empowered by providing an accurate, unfiltered view. Are all the people who work for you exposed to the same information as the CEO? If not, why?
With the right data access, in the right format, every user has the potential to be a breakthrough innovator. And that is, in many ways, the ultimate in transparency.
Be ready to go "off the farm" for learning
Data driven organizations also understand that they will probably need to take information from multiple sources to make decisions. The complexity of the issues at hand may not allow us to be "proud" or "exclusive." It's about finding the spread of data that, together, brings clarity.
Designers need to work with this kind of flexibility in mind; if a new, valuable metric suddenly presents itself, adding it to the mix can't mean taking out the seams and starting over.
The data-driven organization makes the choice to be flexible and transparent, for the good of clients and employees. It also empowers employees to question the data and why things happen a certain way; this can be the biggest source of resistance, but also the largest source of gain.
Being data driven isn't for the faint of heart – which is why I wouldn't work any other way.
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