It’s time to talk about charts

Have you ever felt annoyed that someone tried using a world map chart to visualize country-level data?

Or is that just me?

(It’s probably just me.)

Over the last few weeks I’ve been picking up more books to read (as part of my drive to write more), one of them being Content Inc – recommended to me as a good introduction to content marketing, and how powerful it can be.

The book vacillates between content production at the individual level, and the corporate level. Some of the stories focus on single-person startups, and how they tested ideas and built businesses off the back of content production. The rest of it, haphazardly, deals with how to maintain that within a larger organization (team structures, responsibilities, and so on).

What struck me about the individual stories though was the relative simplicity of the focus. One person wrote about writing – another, about real estate. A third simply wrote about how to get more value out of your camera. All of those, over time, became profitable businesses – the key ingredients being effort, and no small amount of passion for the target subject.

It got me thinking about an idea I had years ago, when first starting to work with Domo. Without going into too much detail, one of the things that intuitively clicked for me during the first few weeks was the brightline relationship between business management, and data visualization.

Borderline-buzzword sentence, I know.

The practice seemed to hit at the intersection of a few of my interest areas – complex systems, data and numbers, and visual communication – and it wasn’t very long before I was already planning out an enormous series of content on how to get the best value out of different data visualization options.

That content never materialized. I had put it on my internal roadmap; to develop “added value” in the form of training content that our consultants could use to help plan best-practice dashboards.

In the end, Domo themselves reached a new level of maturity on their operating models, and that filtered through to the training we got. For that (and quite a few other reasons) that content was never built.

Reading Content Inc made me dust that idea off again. I know for a fact that I can produce useful, actionable content on this topic, having done it before. I’ve also learned, somewhat accidentally, that this is a passion of mine.

In retrospect it might be obvious, but the revelation really came to me on a recent customer project. We were planning out a series of dashboards, and someone wanted to include a world map chart where there didn’t need to be one. That led to a long (and I want to use the word “vibrant”) discussion on whether or not we should include it.

Afterwards, reflecting on that conversation, I realized how deeply I had internalized the principles I had been learning since 2013 – and how naturally they seemed to fit in with the rest of my thinking.

So between that, and my desire to write and publish content more frequently, I’ve decided to take a stab at maintaining a data visualization blog, with a specific focus on practicality: There are amazing interactive visualizations out there (Jer Thorp in particular will always be in my pantheon of data deities), but most of the visualizations we use in daily life are much more basic.

Software has, I think, tricked too many people into thinking charts are easy. I’ve seen so many presentations, Excel workbooks, and “professional”-level reporting that ends up being hard to get any sort of good understanding from.

Simple rule: If your chart is accompanied by a “how to read this chart” helper, you haven’t built a good chart.

And I think this might be the thing that I tackle next: A bit of theory, but mostly practical advice on how to construct good charts. And there are a lot of scenarios to consider – more than enough to build a solid resource for the “everyman” visualization work.

So I’ll be building out plans and content for this over the next few weeks, and hope to launch a new site before the year is out. If there’s one thing I’ve learned so far, is that good data visualization is timeless.

In particular, we’ve had stacked bar charts since as far back as 1780.

Once it goes live, I’ll be posting about the site here. If you want to be alerted when that happens, consider subscribing to my blog – widget’s on the top right.


Check it out:

Whenever I’m not deliberately concentrating on a given task, my mind tends to wander in a very specific way: It tells me stories. All day, every day – characters, worlds, twists, inventing and reinventing themselves.

One of my perpetual New Year’s Resolutions (since roughly 2008) is to write more – almost entirely to pin some of those stories down on paper, and if I turn out to be any good at it, polish one or two up and publish them.

Good theory – much harder in practice.

A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.

~Thomas Mann

Writing, I’ve learned, is every bit a skill as software development. Sure: anyone can read someone else’s work, see the logic in it, and gain the (false) confidence to create something like it – but the moment the pen hits the paper, that evaporates completely, leaving you facing the sober reality that, actually, you have no experience.

This has been my problem for the last few years, and I suspect it’s not unique. Any writer who’s read more than half a writing craft book should know that writing every day is one of the critical components – that you need the ability to produce sheer quantity, before you can start obsessing about the quality.

So with the new year coming, I had the idea of setting up a system for 2017 to help me exercise that muscle. I know I can write 500 words pretty easily – this blog post, written on the spur of the moment, is 586 words – and so long as I have some sort of guidance as to what to write, I shouldn’t find it difficult at all.

500 words per day, for 365 days, is over 180’000 words. Sure, they’re not all congruent words, and I have no hope of getting a novel out of it – but if I can manage it, I’d have written a novel’s worth of words, and I’d have built up routine, momentum, and (hopefully) a bit of confidence in my ability.

On that theory, I grabbed a domain, and started building a system to deliver me a writing prompt every morning at 9am. I figured the workflow would be no different from managing my inbox – I get an email, I respond to it, and I carry on with my day. And if I can do that every day (and let’s be realistic, we spend way too much time on email anyway), then I could start developing a writing habit.

About a minute after that thought, it clicked that other people might also benefit from a system like this, so I’ve spent the last few days producing a polished version I could share. It still needs a ton of behind the scenes work, but I’ve got time over the next 10 days, and I intend on hitting the ground running on 1 January.

That system:

For now, it’s basically just a mailing list. I’m working on a batch of thematic writing prompts (not just the random nonsense you find via Google), and if I can finish this off as intended, I’ve got some other feature ideas to throw in. But right now, I shouldn’t get distracted 😉

(Interestingly enough, while Mailchimp (the list provider there) does have an automation system, setting up a chain of 365 emails would push it to its limit, so I’m working up a completely custom system, using Amazon SES and my own list management. I might do a write-up on this at some point, assuming I can get it all off the ground!)