Considering visualizations, John Tukey remarked that ‘the greatest value of a picture is when it forces us to notice what we never expected to see’, which is not always the case for many of the graphics and visualizations available in organizations, typically in the form of simple charts and dashboards, quite often with no esthetics or meaning behind.

In general reports are needed as source for operational activities, in which the details in form of raw or aggregate data are important. As one moves further to the tactical or strategic aspects of a business, visualizations gain in importance especially when they allow encoding data and information, respectively variations, trends or relations in smaller places with minimal loss of information.

There are also different aspects of visualizations that need to be considered. Modern tools allow rapid visualization and interactive navigation of data across different variables which is great as long one knows what is searching for, which is not always the case.

There are junk charts in which the data drowns in graphical elements that bring no value to the reader, in extremis even distorting the message/meaning.

There are graphics/visualizations that attempt bringing together and encoding multiple variables in respect to a theme, and for which a ‘project’ is typically needed as data is not ad-hoc available, don’t have the desired quality or need further transformations to be ready for consumption. Good quality graphics/visualizations require time and a good understanding of the business, which are not necessarily available into the BI/Analytics teams, and unfortunately few organizations do something in that direction, ignoring typically such needs. In this type of environments is stressed the rapid availability of data for decision-making or action-relevant insight, which depends typically on the consumer.

The story-telling capabilities of graphics/visualizations are often exaggerated. Yes, they can tell a story though stories need to be framed into a context/problem, some background and further references need to be provided, while without detailed data the graphics/visualizations are just nice representations in which each consumer understands what he can.

In an ideal world the consumer and the ‘designer’ would work together to identify the important data for the theme considered, to find the appropriate level of detail, respectively the best form of encoding. Such attempts can stop at table-based representations (aka reports), respectively basic or richer forms of graphical representations. One can consider reports as an early stage of the visualization process, with the potential to derive move value when the data allow meaningful graphical representations. Unfortunately, the time, data and knowledge available seldom make this achievable.

In addition, a well-designed report can be used as basis for multiple purposes, while a graphic/visualization can enforce more limitations. Ideal would be when multiple forms of representation (including reports) are combined to harness the value of data. Navigations from visualizations to detailed data can be useful to understand what happens; learning and understanding the various aspects being an iterative process.

It’s also difficult to demonstrate the value of insight derived from visualizations, especially when graphical literacy goes behind the numeracy and statistical literacy - many consumers lacking the skills needed to evaluate numbers and statistics adequately. If for a good artistic movie you need an assistance to enjoy the show and understand the message(s) behind it, the same can be said also about good graphics/visualizations. Moreover, this requires creativity, abstraction-based thinking, and other capabilities to harness the value of representations.

Given the considerable volume of requirements related to the need of basis data, reports will continue to be on high demand in organizations. In exchange visualizations can complement them by providing insights otherwise not available.

IT professional/blogger with more than 19 years experience in IT - Software Engineering, BI & Analytics, Data, Project, Quality, Database & Knowledge Management