News: Real-world data visualization

Originally Posted on Medium

Accenture recently released their technology vision for 2014. They talk about what they see as the six trends that will be driving changes in business this year. I want to discuss the first trend they identify and examine what it can mean for the enterprise world — the “Digital-Physical blur”.

The digital-physical blur is essentially the connection of the digital to physical through devices. It can give you access to data from all over your business: inventory, sales, truck locations, communications, etc. The devices will be increasingly real-time. The sky is really becoming the limit here.

It is a concept that has been around for some time but recent technology developments are making it more accessible everywhere all the time. Fedex for instance has been using the digital-physical connection for decades in tracking their deliveries. Frito-Lay knows exactly which type of snacks sells better on a per bag basis. What is new is the fact that it will become increasingly present in all facets of our lives and businesses.

These technologies are great are generating data. At the same time, human beings are still making decisions the same way and still need the same inputs as before. Timely decisions require the right data at the right time. Increased speed and quantity of the data might lead to information overload, a false sense of security or analysis paralysis.

Therefore, the need for effective data visualization is increasing exponentially. It is a critical component of any strategy that aims at achieving a more accurate and detailed insight using data. It requires two fundamental building blocks: what are you trying to accomplish and what is the information you need to visualize.

The first building block requires a complete understanding of the goal of the tasks or the decisions to be taken. This is done through research and understanding the business reality. It will yield a series of user profiles and stories about what they need to accomplish. For example, let’s assume your business delivers widgets. Your trucks are equipped with the latest tracking technology. The truck driver needs directions for the optimal driving route. The Director of Operations wants to see the widget inventory per territory to avoid shortages. The VP of Widgets wants information about key performance metrics on performance. Each of these people represents a different user making different decisions or executing tasks.

The second building block is the understanding of the information itself. It’s important to grasp how the information is related, collected, stored, and how it will evolve over time. Connected devices will keep changing and evolving and will continue to generate more and more data. This means that a solid information architecture model will be key to ensure scalability and longevity of your systems. In the example above, all of the decisions use interrelated information — the truck driver needs route information and quantities; the Director of Operations needs inventory levels in the various locations, which levels are adjusted in real-time as the widgets are delivered; and the VP of Widgets needs the metrics such as delivery time, fulfillment percentage (i.e., were any orders not filled because of shortages?) and inventory turn-over rates.

User Experience design is critical here. A solid, experienced UX designer will be able to understand the users and the tasks at hand. Through research, interviews and discovery workshops, the UX designer will identify the key user profiles and needs.

In parallel, the UX designer will seek to understand and map the information, how it’s related, how it’s generated, etc. Either alone or perhaps in collaboration with a software architect, the UX designer will devise an information architecture solution that thoroughly maps the data and its flow.

After completing these two components of the UX process, the UX designer is properly equipped to design an effective data visualization tool for your business, which will enable each user to use and benefit from obtaining the right information at the right time. This is key to effective decision making throughout an organization.

Whether you want to understand consumer behavior, disrupt your industry or simply gain better insight on what is happening in your business, effective data visualization should be a critical component of your strategy.