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DATA VIZ FEATURE: A Blend of Art & Science

November 22 2022

Continuing our month-long focus on Data Viz and with the special issue out tomorrow, Infotools CEO and co-founder Ant Franklin argues that industry leading data visualization involves a perfect blend of art and science, and explains how to achieve that balance.

Ant Franklin
Ant Franklin is the CEO and co-founder of Infotools, a collaborative investigation platform for market research data. Ant's passion for market research stretches back over 35 years and he's proud to have pioneered the use of innovative analysis and visualization tools in the market research industry, which are used by insights teams from the world's biggest brands. InfoTools was acquired by Ipsos a year ago.

Most intellectual pursuits land in two broad categories: the subjective field of art, rooted in beauty, aesthetics and emotion, or the objective field of science, guided by hypotheses, testing, and data. Data visualization is a rare exception.

The best data visualizations successfully distil information, presenting it in ways which make it easy to relate. It does this straddling the two aforementioned disciplines: the rigorous, scientific investigation of data to pursue new understanding about the world plus an artful approach to uncovering the most important findings, which are subsequently shared with others. This may not be easy, but it is just this blend that gives market research and insights its intrigue and value.

Art and science can coexist and complement one another, but it requires a careful, considered approach. However, the temptation lies in emphasizing one element over the other. We find a happy medium using storytelling.

Storytelling makes science accessible

The Science Council defines science as the pursuit and application of knowledge and understanding of the natural and social world following a systematic methodology based on evidence. Art, on the other hand, tends more toward subjectivity, using various mediums to communicate ideas to stimulate thought and trigger emotion. Something truly special happens when these two are intertwined.

In the words of Margaret Atwood, author of The Handmaid's Tale: 'You're never going to kill storytelling, because it's built into the human plan. We come with it.' The market research and insights sector has been talking about storytelling for decades. This is not set to change.

Storytelling elevates data visualization in some key ways for market researchers by helping us tell stories that resonate, simplify complex data, and illustrate to achieve deep audience understanding. As researchers, it's our job to enlighten by cutting through the clutter, and balancing art and science enables us to do this.

Data quality: It's a matter of credibility

After a decade or so of the world skewing towards big data, to that which can be measured, we are seeing a correction of sorts - a push back towards visualization. Amidst this recalibration, we need to realize that our data visualizations are only as good as the data they represent. One may get away with the most striking of visuals for a time, but if these visualizations are not accurate or reflect business change, our credibility as insights professionals will be on the line.

Reliable data sets are essential to this work in order to influence stakeholders or provide value as intended. This requires constant investment in lifting the quality of our data sets, especially with the prevalence of fraudulent behavior in data collection. Once our data (science) is reputable and trustworthy, we can focus on the visualization (art).

Beyond static visualizations: Interactivity is the norm

Historically, the insights sector relied on static visualizations in the form of cross-tabs and PowerPoints to communicate insights. Thankfully, we are no longer constrained by rudimentary systems that limit creativity or customization.

Today, there are plenty of software tools to make data look appealing, but it takes more than pretty pictures to make visualizations meaningful. These software tools push past static representations of data, enabling employees to further investigate the data, find more valuable insights, and experience more of those 'aha' moments that market researchers crave.

Storytelling at its best is when someone finds a thread of an insight, starts pulling on it, and sees where it goes. Rather than waiting for agencies or data processing to recut the data, those investigating market research can now do it themselves, on the fly, letting their curiosity run wild, and keeping their critical line of questioning flowing.

By employing the right technology, it is easy to challenge the status quo, try something new with our visualizations, and see patterns in our data that were previously hidden. With beautiful, interactive, dynamic reporting that is easy to understand, use, and remember, our insights stand a better chance of influencing important decision making and creating real value.

Collaboratively setting the narrative

To truly engage organizations from within the insights function, we have to involve others in the process and encourage further discovery. Decision makers can be participants in crafting the story, taking the work that we've done to the next level by feeding their experience into the process. We shouldn't view this as 'losing control' of the narrative but making sure we have the best possible insights in the market.

This collaboration and teamwork, at minimum, needs to happen within insights teams, so that multiple team members are able to work together, using their unique, individual approach to finding the stories in the data. Importantly, each person has a different experience and perspective to create relatable insights that enlighten and influence.

Furthermore, most individuals needing regular insights reports as part of their jobs have to go through the tedious process of asking someone else to generate them, every time. Using interactive dashboarding tools that allow others to find the stories in the data is just one way to create efficiencies, and further the storytelling function to apply to each person's expertise.

Finding the balance between substance and flair

Making data visualizations engaging, dynamic and easy-to-use is an art form - the aim of which is to encapsulate ways to support business stakeholders in their decision-making. The best storytellers - and the best data visualizations - successfully distil information, presenting it in insightful ways in which makes it easier to relate.

With technology or science taking a front seat in most discussions, it is important to remember some of the foundations of our industry: curiosity, compassion, and understanding. The curiosity of the researcher is what uncovers the stories the data is trying to tell us; the platforms and technology simply help facilitate this process.

Finding a balance between the science of data and the art of finding the best stories is key. Without it we'll end up with all art and no substance, or all science and no flair. Either way, the magic is lost and an opportunity is missed. Natural creativity and curiosity, coupled with the speed and power of the latest solutions, give us opportunities we've never seen before. Human creativity permeates every aspect of our lives and has been responsible for the most powerful breakthroughs - and this holds true in market research data visualization: a discipline rooted in both art and science.

All articles 2006-23 written and edited by Mel Crowther and/or Nick Thomas, 2024- by Nick Thomas, unless otherwise stated.

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