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User-centered visualizations: How and why

Visual representations make data understandable and usable. And since every user needs data for a different purpose, it is important to adapt data visualizations to their needs. In this article, I show you how to do this and what business benefits it brings.


By Mario Giudici

Data, or rather the information it contains, is the basis for work and decision-making processes in a wide variety of business areas. Visualizations are often used to transform raw data into comprehensible information. Thereby, data is presented with the help of visual elements such as diagrams, graphs and maps in a way that helps one easily recognize and understand connections, outliers and patterns in the data.

The most appropriate way of presenting data depends mainly on what information users want to read from it and what they want to use it for. For example, let's consider different employees in a hospital:

  • A radiologist has the task of detecting health problems, such as a tumor. To do this, he needs a two-dimensional MRI scan: the radiologist is skilled at analyzing and assessing such images.
  • The general practitioner, however, needs a different kind of visualization. He has the responsibility of explaining to the tumor patient, a medical layperson, exactly where the problem lies. To do this, he needs an image that is as easily accessible as possible and contains just as much information as the patient needs.
  • And then there is the surgeon who will eventually remove the tumor. She would like to have the same data in three dimensions so that she can study the tumor and its position from all sides and plan the operation accordingly.

As can be seen in the example above, the same data must be visually prepared in different ways – as an MRI scan, as a 3D model and as an easy-to-understand image.

But how do you find out which type of visualization users need in a specific use case? And what is the business benefit of paying attention to user-friendliness in this context? Let's find out together.

How do you create user-centered visualizations?

Regardless of the context: in order to find out how a product or service can best meet the needs of users, you need to do user research – this also applies to the development of visualizations. User research can be integrated into the development process in two ways:

1. Initial consideration of user needs

Ideally, user research is carried out right at the beginning. This ensures that the outcome will be relevant to the users. The requirements and needs of the users can be determined by asking the following questions:

  • Who exactly uses the data?
  • Which questions or problems should the data address?
  • What skills do the users have in dealing with data?
  • What experiences have they had with the data (which is now to be visualized) in the past?
  • How do they work with it? And what do they need to be able to do this work more efficiently?

The answers to these questions provide the basis for the further development of a visualization.

2. Let users evaluate the proto-type

However, user-centred considerations can also be incorporated during the development process of a visualization and thus continuously improve it. Developers can, for example, create a prototype at an early stage and have it assessed (or evaluated) by users. This has the advantage that potential problems can be identified at an early stage of the project, which saves both costs and other resources.

In a so-called evaluation, it is important to work together with the users. They can give feedback on the following key points:

  • Functionality: Does the visualization contain all the information and functionalities that the users need?
    Regarding the aforementioned example: does the visualization provide the desired 3D view for the surgeon?
  • User-friendliness: Does the visualization meet the level of graphic understanding of the users? Is all the information clearly visible and unambiguous?
    Regarding the aforementioned example: Are the colors of "normal" tissue and tumor cells different enough that the radiologist can easily recognize the latter?
  • Potential for improvement: What problems have users encountered when using the visualization?
    Regarding the aforementioned example: does the GP report that his patient did not understand the terms used in the visualization?

A visualization team can involve the users at the beginning but also during the development process. Developing a visualization that matches the needs and requirements of those who will use it brings business benefits that should not be underestimated.

Visualize your data with "small multiples"!

"Small multiples" – several charts arranged in the same grid – are the best way to compare different key figures.

Learn in this hack how you can thus easily create a data visualization.

What business value do user-centered visualizations bring?

Whether you create visualizations for medical staff in a hospital, for customers on an online shopping site or for other user groups – the better they are tailored to their requirements and needs, the better the user experience.

A positive user experience in turn has a tangible business value in various areas. If customers come into contact with the visualizations used by a company, greater user-friendliness increases the chance that they will purchase the company's products or services and remain loyal to it in the long term. According to the 2022 Trend Report by the software company Zendesk, up to 61% of customers turn to another company after just one bad experience.

The same can be applied to a company's internal stakeholders: A better user experience makes for more productive and less frustrated employees, among other things. For the example of user-centered visualizations, let's go back to the hospital staff mentioned at the beginning:

  • The radiologist is able to detect tumors quickly and reliably thanks to the MRI scan. This not only improves his efficiency and satisfaction, but also the hospital's reputation thanks to the high detection rate.
  • With the easily accessible image of the tumor, the general practitioner can explain her state of health to the patient in a comprehensible way. While he saves time, the patient has a good experience in this doctor's office.
  • The surgeon can perform a successful operation thanks to the 3D model of the tumor. This increases not only her satisfaction, but also that of the whole surgical team and the patient. Again, thanks to the good preparation, resources in the form of time are saved.

Conclusion

User-centered visualizations can ensure that each user gets exactly the added value from raw data that he or she needs. To achieve this, user research should play an important role in the development process of visualizations from the beginning. It is also valuable to involve users during the development process, e.g. by creating a prototype of a visualization early on and asking users for feedback.

Whether visualizations are created for customers or other stakeholders such as employees, listening to their needs and requirements will bring tangible business value, such as increased customer or employee satisfaction, a better company reputation and higher productivity.

If you want to know exactly what the development process of a user-centered visualization looks like, contact me.

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