Data Visualization: Changing the Web Design Game, one Site at a Time

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 Updated: 
September 15, 2019
 / 6 minutes

Humans are visual animals. We’re most tied to our sense of sight by evolutionary design, as our primary method of taking in the world around us is through our eyes. Back in the Neolithic, it was all about perceiving and identifying threats; it’s the best survival tool we had. Together with our other senses, our visual acuity allowed you to determine if there was a pack of wolves lurking in the underbrush or if it was just someone coming back from picking berries.

We might have moved past these sorts of threats as a species, but our reliance on observing and analyzing visual data has not abated. In fact, the best way to engage someone today is still on a visual level. The same instincts that made us sit up and take notice during our hunter-gatherer days act today to capture our attention, after all — and modern web development techniques take this concept and run with it. One of the most effective ways to convey concepts to site visitors is through data visualization, and it’s an incredibly powerful tool — one that you simply can’t ignore.

Charting Human Interest

It’s a web designer’s job to present data in ways that accomplish specific goals. These goals are often measurable, such as increasing traffic to a specific site or encouraging visitors to convert to customers. Using data visualization is a highly effective marketing tactic to drive that traffic or get visitors to pull the trigger on purchases they may have been debating. Yet this only works if you provide the right data, in the right forms, to the right audience.

If there’s one excellent example of how data visualization can play such a strong role in conveying information to consumers, it’s how it can be used to turn raw statistical data, the kind that can leave you feeling decidedly underwhelmed or even confused, into something that makes complex concepts almost instantly understandable at a glance. Creating charts, infographics, or any other visual representation of raw statistical data also keeps the interest of the observer in ways that would otherwise be impossible.

Again, there’s a reason this works as well as it does. Thanks to our innate bias towards information presented to us visually, we’re all hard-wired to pay attention to what we see more often than what we experience through our other senses. If it wasn’t important to see a musician perform their songs, the live music concert industry wouldn’t be as popular as it is. Likewise, no one goes to movie theaters to hear books read to them for two hours straight, do they? Of course not — it’s the visual spectacle that draws our attention.

Mapping the Path Forward

There are a number of ways to use data visualization effectively beyond simple infographic creation. To that end, Google Maps is one of those gifts that just keeps on giving to web developers and consumers alike. It’s grown far beyond its initial function as an interactive roadmap and has since embraced its role in countless other online aspects. No longer is Google Maps used for trip planning, as its highly robust local search capabilities make it easy to find anything and everything from schools, hospitals, and shopping to restaurants, hotels, and other attractions.

Today, clicking on any point of interest in Google Maps can bring up detailed information about that location, complete with telephone numbers and website links, hours of operation, overhead satellite imagery, and user-uploaded photographs and reviews. But these are all consumer-facing capabilities; it’s under the hood is where Google Maps really shines. Developers with access to API keys can create custom experiences for their visitors in a multitude of ways.

Suddenly, any number of data visualization types are possible. Provide interactive maps for local food festivals, including the best route to experience each restaurant, complete with food reviews and full festival menus.  Map traffic accidents for consumers to search for hotspots — or even information on an accident that they’ve been involved in personally. Or even use it as an educational tool to show how climate change will turn your inland estate into beachfront property. In this case, as long as you have the programming chops, the possibilities are truly endless.

You’re Only as Good as Your Data

Data visualization can and does work like a charm, but there are some major hurdles you’ll have to overcome if you want to leverage it effectively. For all the tools and methods out there for creating interactive and informative charts, maps, infographics, and more, the bare truth is that these end products won’t be more than attractive window dressing unless the data driving them is accurate and applicable.

This is perhaps the most important concept to understand with data visualization. In the wrong hands, these same tools that you’re using to support a developer’s goals can be used to undermine them. You might typically encounter this in particularly cutthroat business sectors where there is a high degree of competition, but in the end, it’s possible to take any sort of statistical data and present it in misleading ways.

In these cases, the data being visualized is technically accurate. The problem is that it’s being presented in a context that is misleading. It’s an approach used most often in the political sphere, and almost always by bad actors. This makes it an extremely black hat; it might get you the results you want, but it’s unethical, unsustainable, and just downright unpleasant. The only way to avoid these kinds of situations is to ensure you use accurate data in your visualizations — and that you use it honestly.

The Final Word on Data Visualization

At this point, it’s obvious that the world of data visualization is varied, filled with opportunities for developers to support their creations. At the same token, it’s also a potential minefield of issues to be navigated, especially when it comes to sourcing accurate data to be visualized or using data in an ethical manner. This makes data visualization a lot more complicated than just making some pretty graphs and charts or sticking a few virtual pins in an interactive map.

It’s enough to make you want to throw up your hands in frustration. But don’t head over to your favorite stock image site for overpriced, generic visual content just yet. Instead, invest those resources in sourcing the best data you can find and using existing tools to turn it into visual gold. As the old saying goes: if something’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well. Just because getting data visualization done right is a challenge doesn’t mean you shouldn’t undertake it. The impact good data visualization has on the effectiveness of your site is worth the time, effort, and resources you invest in it.

In the end, developers can get out of data visualization whatever they put into it and then some. No matter what goal you’re pursuing, relying on human nature — our fascination with visual media — is a winning investment.

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