Off The Charts!

When data visualization cannot tell the whole story.

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You have heard that a picture speaks a thousand words, but when we come to make sense of data, visualization alone may not tell the whole story.

Don’t get me wrong - a well-designed chart or interactive visualization is a great way to see an overview of patterns, trends and exceptions in your business. However, simple narrative text can describe, highlight or explain features in ways that many users will find helpful. And for certain cases, such as writing reports and reviews, detailed descriptions may be essential.

This is why Qlik is so excited to be working with Narrative Science, a leader in the field of natural language generation. With Narratives for Qlik, our products integrate easily to provide a textual interpretation of your visual content. (See what CIO Magazine has to say by clicking here.)

Why would you want to do this? If you’re an experienced developer of business dashboards, you may feel you can illustrate all your needs by just adding new visualizations or adding more detail to existing examples.

In practice, we find that even good visualizations have three important limitations.

Firstly, the viewer must understand the visual language in use. Data analysts easily forget that not everyone shares their insightful reading of even a simple bar chart. Visualizations of a long-tail distribution, for example, may need explanation to highlight the significance of what we see there. And once we get used to seeing such visualizations, we may too readily jump to conclusions based on patterns we have learned before.

Narratives can draw attention to significant features that we may not immediately understand, such as distributions. In this way, we can learn the visual language for the future. Yet the text descriptions also help to keep us grounded in the details in case we are prone to over-interpret what we are seeing.

Speaking of details, the second limitation of data visualization is also, ironically enough, one of the factors which make a good chart or graphic usable in the first place. A good visual representation has clarity: a clear purpose and that purpose is clearly shown.

If we consider our long-tail distribution again, we could add indicators of total values to our chart, along with average and median values, standard deviations and so on. However, each addition reduces the clarity of our work. A narrative gloss, describing these details can be a handy addition to the visual overview.

Finally, visualizations simply do not tell the whole story in your data. They cannot capture the flow and context of a human conversation which is, in fact, our most fundamental form of collaboration. Their clarity and their specialized visual language illustrate the story, but they are not the story we are trying to tell.

This is why narrative interpretations of data are so powerful in a report or review. Your understanding of the scenario unfolds over time. Our verbal language is highly tuned to assist memory and understanding through this unfolding. And, when it comes to debate and disagreement - the most important and informative aspect of any collaboration - verbal language is our natural tool of choice.

For all these reasons, I am excited by the ability to complement the elegance of our visualizations in Qlik Sense with the unique technology of Narrative Science. Our users will understand more, learn more and collaborate more effectively than ever before.

It takes more than a picture, and less than a thousand words too!

Photo credit: kevin dooley via Foter.com / CC BY

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