Data, data everywhere

Marmite. While some people love it, many people can’t stand the stuff, and avoid it wherever possible.

It’s a bit like that with numbers. Show the average Joe in the street an Excel pivot table and he’ll turn and run in terror.

Around a quarter of adults in the UK are at the lowest level of numeracy.

Sales spreadsheets, KPI dashboards and financial presentations have long been staples of business life, but until recently we marketers could get away with hiding from the numbers, insisting that what we do is more art than science.

No longer. The business of marketing has become numbers-driven to the core — and data is a key part of the materials marketers create for customers, too. From survey reports to infographics and TCO calculators, numbers are everywhere.

It’s easy to see why. Data is the evidence to back up your message. It’s the eye-catching chart on the slide. It’s the persuasive sidebar stat in the brochure. But get it wrong and data can confuse, distract or even mislead your customers.

So what can you do to use data confidently in your work? Here are our five top tips.

1. Choose the right visualisation

Anyone who’s used Microsoft Office will have seen bar, line and pie charts. But they’re just the start: there are hundreds of different ways of plotting data out there. It’s tempting to venture off the beaten path and try out different chart types just because they look great, or to pick different chart types for variety. But the essence of good chart use is restraint.

You should choose the right chart type for your data and what you’re trying to show. Generally speaking stick to simpler charts that your audience will be able to interpret easily. Hubspot has a great article explaining many of the different chart types and best practices for using them, and it includes some key questions that you can use to make your decision.

Whatever you choose, try to be consistent across your document so readers can compare data between different charts. Include labels on your data series and axes.

Ready to push the boundaries a little? There’s a whole world beyond the x and y axes. Keep your eye on showcases like the Information is Beautiful awards, Delayed Gratification, and the D&AD awards.

The Billion Dollar Gram is one of our all-time favourites

2. Use colour wisely, and consistently

Colour is a powerful tool for a designer, and how you use it can have a dramatic effect on how your readers interpret your data. Imagine you’ve got a simple pie chart, where most segments are a pale pastel and one’s fire-engine red. Which is going to stand out more? When you’re choosing colours, bear these rules in mind:

  • Keep your use of colour consistent: if the 18-24 age category is represented by a red segment in a chart on page one, don’t colour-code it green in the chart on page four.
  • Remember that some colours will convey a message: most obviously, green is good, red is danger.
  • Consider contrast and confusion: if you use similar colours to represent different segments in a chart, readers may not easily be able to distinguish them, particularly if they have to refer to a legend to see the labels. This is a big issue in many brand palettes!

3. Don’t overdo it!

Try something different and use colour, but keep it sensible. Just because the app you’re using can create animated 3D pie charts doesn’t mean that it’s a good idea to do so.

  • Stick to flat perspectives: people have difficulty comparing sizes accurately in 3D.
  • Be careful about using different size circles: for the same reason.
  • If you use shapes, use the area — not the height or width — to represent your data. A circle that’s twice the radius has four times the area.

4. Bring it to life

Charts don’t have to be static. Use animation and interactivity to draw attention to your data or walk readers through your story. There are lots of great tools that are now available—many of which are free or very cheap — use them to wow your audience with living, breathing data.

  • Building up a chart in in several steps can make it easier to understand.
  • Using filters to add trendlines or cut out unnecessary series can help readers navigate more complex data sets.
  • Simple usability features like hover-over chart labels can help too.

5. Make it personal

If you have a great stock of unique data, let users drill down into it. Let them see how it applies to their sector or their region. Some companies are even starting to offer readers the option to download all the raw data from a survey and play with it themselves in their own tools.

A lot of businesses will see this as risky (what if the reader disagrees with the conclusions you’ve reached in your accompanying research report? What if a competitor gains advantage by using your data?), but it’s a powerful way to demonstrate that you’re playing it straight and have built a robust data set.

This interactive “you draw it” chart from The New York Times is an exceptional example.

Like with any content, the golden rule is to get to the point. Good writers don’t use a long word where a short one will do. They know that the goal is not to show off, it’s to get your message across to the reader. The same goes with numbers and charts.

Simplify, then add lightness.

Colin Chapman, founder of Lotus

Only use the best statistics available — not every point needs a figure to support it. What are the gems you can’t leave the meeting room without mentioning? Focus on those. Try and avoid waffle or adding data that isn’t absolutely vital.

Numbers strengthen your message and have a big impact. Use them wisely.

Say something!