Make better infographics

Let's face it; we're living in an age of total data overwhelm. We need to be able to quickly understand what's going on in a set of data. We need the story, or at least powerful tools to help us get the data that helps us visualize trends, movements and comparisons. So how do we do this better?

It's about story, not information
Having graphics and charts with no rhyme or reason is a terrible user experience - here's a typically awful example (click view demo). In this example, I'm unsure about what I am looking at. I have zero context, zero reason for consuming these charts, and thus no reason to engage or interact. Stories give us context. Stories are memorable. Stories help us better understand the complex world around us. They tie together the loose and chaotic threads of the world's events. If we're using charts and graphs, we're visual communicators. But what are we saying? Is it visual clutter, mere gibberish - or are we delivering something understandable, consumable, relatable? Big data may be the band wagon that everyone is on, but the bedrock of visual communication remains actually having something interesting to say or show. And that will be the true differentiator between products in the marketplace.

Screen Shot 2014-05-23 at 10.35.04 AM

To that end, here's one of my favorite data visualizations in the last few weeks - the depth of the ocean vs. trying to find the sunken Malaysian Airlines, via the Washington Post. I love that it uses the long scroll, a semi-unpleasant user experience, to illustrate the depth of the ocean in the area of the downed aircraft - and thus the difficulty of the search. Absolutely brilliant.

Good infographics are based on clean, reliable data
This is less obvious, I know. Less obvious to the person making the chart, graph or infographic. And less obvious to the audience, who implicitly trusts what's being presented. (Aside: If you want to really get people to trust you, have a picture of an MRI or brain scan - doesn't matter what or why - just the presence of that image makes reader trust skyrocket)

Here's the truth - when you build a building, you better build a damn good foundation. Similarly, if you are presenting a chart or graphic, you take responsibility for the numbers behind it. People probably won't notice immediately, but if they get into an argument and use your data, and they get called out, you better believe that experience will stick with them. The shame of being wrong will override any sense of wow or interest that they had in the story. And the shattered trust won't (and shouldn't be) easily repaired. By presenting information in a visual way, you are relying on the audience's good will and trust. Don't disappoint them.

Good infographics are attractive and easy to read
This is a basic rule of good design, but I see it violated all over the place, even on infographics that are featured on 'best infographic' sites. Eliminate clutter, and make it easy for me to make my own conclusions about the data - remember, it's about story, NOT about information.