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Seven reasons to visualize data

What to do when KPIs are not met? Or when people internally or externally can't quite take in data, concepts or processes? An effective tool to use is visualizations. Here are seven reasons to invest more in visualizations to achieve your goals and to speed development of your operations.

Visualizations are graphical representations of data, objects and environments that make it easier for people to analyze, learn, gain insight and make decisions.

In today's reality, where vast amounts of data are collected and available, visualizations are an absolutely necessity.

"If those who make decisions do not understand their data, then the organization will not get very far in 2021," says Kristina Knaving, senior researcher and interaction designer at RISE, and responsible for the focus area The Connected Individual.

Visualizations can be used for two basic purposes:

1. To understand and analyze your data. When you have large amounts of complex or multidimensional data, it can be difficult to get that necessary overview. Visual analysis can then be decisive. For example, if some KPIs in a business have not been met, visualization can be used to quickly to find which data can explain the disappointing results, and thus need to be closely monitored in the future.

2. To efficiently communicate data. In order to make quick and wise decisions that benefit a business, it is not enough to have access to relevant data. Data visualizations must be adapted to who is affected by them, and made as clear and insightful as possible.

Let's take a more concrete look at the reasons for working more with visualizations in a business.

1. Visualizations are absorbed by the brain at lightning speed

– "Our brains are set up to quickly see patterns visually," says Kristina Knaving. "Interpreting raw data in Excel takes much longer, regardless of whether the data is presented in the form of numbers or text. It's also hard to get an overview – you can go through numbers in a spreadsheet for hours and still not gain a good understanding of how they are related. This is something that data visualization can immediately provide a picture of, where you can directly understand not only the numbers but how they relate to other data. That's how you get true insight."

2. Visualizations are able to provide overviews and granularity – at the same time

– "Visualizations can show both large brush strokes and present details in a single image; you can see both the individual data points and trends at the same time. It gives a much richer understanding of how things actually are. A common example is a dashboard tailored to the needs of different users, where, for example, a department manager and an operator can get an overview of the most important things to keep track of – right now, or over time."

3. Visualizations can explain important messages

You may have seen this curve:

Image: Folkhälsomyndigheten,…

– "Throughout the pandemic, the Public Health Agency of Sweden has talked about 'keeping down the curve', which comes from a single visualization shared all over the Internet. This visualization explains the relationship between resources and the number of people infected and hospitalized in ICUs over time, easily understandable and clear."


Image: Climate Lab Book,

– "Another example of how a visualization can engage with a clear message. In this case, the visualization shows how the global temperature rise is accelerating."

4. Visualizations are more inclusive

After the 2018 general election, it was difficult to understand how a majority government might look. The Swedish national public television broadcaster produced a graphic where anyone could piece together a government – along with comments from the political commentator Mats Knutson. Check it out and give it a try:

Image: SVT


– Visualization enables many more people to be involved in discussions. Not everyone has the ability, knowledge or experience to otherwise understand. In order to have a say, one must understand, and visualization makes this possible in a way that explanations alone cannot.

5. Visualizations highlight how data is distributed

Two different districts have exactly the same average income: SEK 35,000 kronor a month.

But take a look at how the income is distributed in the population:

– "We are used to looking at averages, but not looking at distribution curves, which can provide many insights, in this case, into socio-economic effects. And instead of just following the number of production stops week by week, visualizations can quickly provide insight, such as that 80 percent of all faults occur between 9 and 10 a.m. or that 5 stop types account for 95 percent of costs."

6. Visualizations can show trends

– "Visualizations of streaming data from sensors and automated systems, for example, make it easy to go back in time and gain an overview of what has happened in an industrial process or in a city over a period of time, for example in the past 24 hours."

7. Visualizations can show trends and sound alarms when there are deviations

– "If you have systems that only sounds an alarm when a limit value has been passed, then there is a risk that you will take action too late. Say that the cooling temperature in a transport should preferably be 4 degrees, and at most 6 degrees. If the temperature is 5.7–5.9 degrees on several occasions, it may be useful to find out before the heatwave hits next week. Visualization makes detection easier."

A data visualization must match its audience, whether it's the general public, a management team or a group of engineers

How can RISE contribute?

1. The right data selection.

– "A major problem for businesses is that they use the data you have, instead of mapping needs and understanding which data they need to collect to understand and control a process. With a lack of understanding of which data you need, there is a risk of 'bias' when sorting out data, usually unconsciously, or not understanding the limitations of the data. You choose to see what you want to see, instead of seeing what you need to see. Success requires a needs-centred process, and we can help with that."

2. Visualizations for insight that make a difference.

– "A data visualization must match its audience, whether it's the general public, a management team or a group of engineers. You have to meet the recipient at the right point in time, with the right kind of visualizations, based on the most relevant data. At RISE, we have in-depth knowledge and experience both in different visualization techniques and in user-centred design."

3. Training to become visualization intelligent.

– "Visualizations are a two-sided coin. You can easily be fooled with visualizations. They kidnap the brain to directly 'understand' reality. For example, Donald Trump tweeted out this image in 2019, which seems to show how Trump crushed all opposition in 2016, when he had actually lost the popular vote:

– "Democrats got the most votes in the cities, where most people live. However, this majority of the population occupies only a small area in terms of the total land area. This is the thing about 'bad visualization'. You don't lie, but you choose views of reality in a slanted way. In our courses, we help rank-and-file employees and management staff to not be fooled by deliberately slanted visualizations, while gaining both knowledge and understanding of how visualizations can be used constructively in a business," says Kristina Knaving.

Published: 2021-06-11
Kristina Knaving

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Kristina Knaving

Fokusområdesledare Den uppkopplade individen - Senior forskare och interaktionsdesigner

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