Exploring Interactive Visualization

We often spend time talking to organizations that initially believe developing one or more static infographics is the best approach. Many times, we discover that their objectives, narrative, existing content and the profile of their target audience suggest we should be considering developing an interactive work product instead. As infographics become a more prevalent form of communication, we look ahead to other meaningful ways to impart information. This article serves as an introduction to interactive visualizations, with more detailed articles on the topic still to come.

1. What’s an interactive?

For the sake of this post, Column Five defines interactive visualizations as Web-based products that utilize on-page navigation features (e.g., mouse-overs, clicks, drop-down menus, check boxes, etc.), allowing the user to interact with the interface in a way that reveals new information and/or data as the user explores the piece. We provide a much more robust and illustrative definition in Chapter 2 of our book, Infographics: The Power of Visual Storytelling.

2. Who’s it best for?

There are a few basic “starter” questions you can think through that may help you and your organization decide if creating a Dynamic Visualization makes sense. They include looking at the volume of information and/or data you want to convey, analyzing the target audience and the experience that will resonate with them (e.g., exploration and control), and determining once published, how long the information should be relevant (shelf life). These questions are briefly explored below (points 3-5).

3. Does size matter?

This is probably the most common occurrence where we encounter the need for an interactive visualization. It is very common for organizations to have a rather large volume of information that needs to be conveyed. Sometimes this comes in the form of data; sometimes it’s simply an enormous amount of text and imagery. In either case, there is only so much a design studio can do to elegantly incorporate information within the context of a static visualization before the message starts getting confused and the aesthetic integrity of the piece compromised. This dynamic represents one of the hallmarks of this format, presenting us with an opportunity to use interactive visualizations to convey a large amount of information or a lengthy narrative within the context of a single interface.

Consider creating an outline of the narrative you want visualized (including rough copy and sections). If this text-only outline is several pages long and using multiple static pages to convey the message is something you want to avoid, you may very well want to consider an interactive work-product.

4. Do you want to provide exploration and control?

This dynamic is a bit subtle but very important. One of the most unique attributes of interactive products is how engaging they tend to be.  “Interactives” are an active medium. Unlike motion graphics or static visualizations where the consumer occupies the role of voyeur (passive), interactives enable the consumers of the content to control the experience. They can be extremely flexible, allowing consumers to set their own pace as they explore and discover information. This dynamic is important to consider as it relates to the specific profile of the intended audience. Certain groups of people are much more inclined to want to be in control or quickly navigate to areas they feel will be most relevant to them (e.g., engineers, physicians). This is important to account for when deciding the format to deliver your visual content.

5. What’s the shelf life?

We often have organizations request our help in crafting static visualizations that need to be manually updated or adjusted at a somewhat regular frequency. Examples include organizations that conduct surveys or compile recurring reports. Interactive infographics can be utilized to help automate this process. Whether the interactive is constructed to allow an organization to upload or input new data, or if the product is designed to pull data from a server, interactives can be evergreen, eliminating the need for manual changes and extending the product’s shelf life. If your organization is considering visualizing a process, report or story that will require periodic data updates, you should consider the development of an interactive visualization.

Jake Burkett is the Director of Business Development at Column Five. He leads Column Five’s software development practice and works tirelessly with his more technically inclined colleagues, building interactive reporting and dashboarding software products to make visual communication more flexible, cost effective, and beautiful. Follow him @JakeRyanBurkett


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