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Data Visualization: Building User-Centric Platforms for Big Data

April 9, 2013

Big data is a challenge for the market research industry. MR has always been about taking things that are small and making them represent something bigger. Now, we have near-Census-level databases for a variety of purposes; we are not lacking for data. What client companies need is guidance – a manageable set of practical actions culled from these reams of information.

A key part of the answer is customized visualization – built for specific companies, departments, and even individual users. To make big data really useful to business, we need to bring the right information to the right people in the right settings. There are very strategic ways of visualizing data, and very tactical ones; the trick is achieving the right balance for a given situation.

A “data visualizer” needs to be a cross between a data scientist, a graphic designer, and a psychotherapist. Being really good at PowerPoint® or InDesign® is not enough. And this gets at a point that market research companies need to confront – that working well with big data requires new talent as well as new thinking. Ideally, an information designer should have a background that somehow combines statistics, communication, and art. And they will likely need help from an IT specialist who understands data and front-end development.

“I’m all ears”

Planning is the most important word in a data visualizer’s vocabulary. If you allow sufficient time with your users, you’ll learn what you need in order to surface just the right insights for each person in the company. But if you allow only a few minutes for research, then jerry-rig a visualization scheme based on two or three others you did earlier in the month, you’ll develop something that will frustrate users for months or years to come.

The key to good planning is skillful listening. There is usually a big difference between what users say they want, and what they actually need. It may be, for example, that someone will ask for a button to download a certain piece of data into PowerPoint, but what they actually need is a way to share information with one of their colleagues. PowerPoint is just the medium that they’re used to sharing within; you need to listen well enough to get beyond the user’s own assumptions, then start from scratch.

In addition, users will often say they need to have real-time data just because they know it can be done. But there are very few decisions that really require this; in fact, real-time may lead to information overload and burnout. To drive a car, you need real-time information on your speed and gas level, but not how many total miles you’ve driven your car; this is why the odometer is small but the speed dial outsized.

The role of the information designer is in identifying what the core need is, and devising the right visualization for that.

Bitsy Bentley is Director of Data Visualization at GfK. She can be reached at

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