At Research Club on Wednesday, I was explaining to a senior agency researcher that I specialise in thinking up new ways of visualising survey data. That’s all very well, he said, but when I only have two days from the data being finalised to presenting the results, where’s the time for that?
He has a point. Project timings are so tight that even a small hitch earlier in the data collection process can seriously affect the time available to analyse the results and dig out the findings. Agencies have sometimes been marked down by client companies for not providing enough value added insight with the results, but I sometimes think the reasons for this are misdiagnosed. It’s not that researchers don’t know how to find or present insight, it’s that they don’t have time to, because timings have slipped earlier in the research process and they are scrabbling to pull findings together right at the end to meet the original deadline.
It is relatively easy, and enjoyable, to develop new ways of presenting and communicating research data visually. The real challenge is being able to apply some of these new approaches on real world projects.
One of the ways of addressing this is to plan ahead and develop ideas away from a specific project which could be applied to different projects. That way the “thinking time” has already been spent and when the live project comes to reporting, researchers can move straight in to applying a new data visualisation which has already been developed, tested and tweaked.
Keeping things consistent in terms of software also has its advantages. I spend a lot of time working with PowerPoint VBA which can usually be applied relatively seamlessly because PowerPoint is, for better or for worse, the main reporting and presenting tool used by researchers. Most outputs are editable, and there’s the option to include custom add-ins using the Microsoft Office ribbon, making the creating of a data visualisation easy and accessible to a researcher under pressure.
Richer data visualisation also ought to mean smaller output, because it’s possible to squeeze more insight into a smaller space and gain more insight by seeing everything at once. This takes some planning and possibly negotiation up front, because it’s tempting from the client side to say yes, great, let’s see something different, but can we also keep seeing all the old stuff as well? With better data visualisation we can, and really should, be moving away from the 200-slide PowerPoint deck into something more attractive and intuitive, possibly interactive, and just plain smaller, something that tells a story and doesn’t somewhere along the way turn into a data dump.
In the long run therefore it ought to take less time to produce better data visualisation than a traditional linear PowerPoint report. But it will take some planning to get there.