Exploratory vs. Explanatory Visuals in Planning

I love this topic because it elicits a higher level of thought around designing the data visualizations we need in planning, in a way that my simple mind can consume.

In her book “Storytelling with Data,” Cole Nussbaumer Knaflic points out very early on that there are really two kinds of data visualizations: exploratory and explanatory. Exploratory visuals are created to help us figure out what the important things are within the data…they have an analytical purpose. Explanatory visuals are meant only to show us the important things…there should be little to no intended analytical value.

Makes sense, right?  What if I ask you what type of visuals you are creating now?

Your answer likely will be “explanatory,” but based on what I see daily, that may not be entirely true. Apparently, Nussbaumer Knaflic agrees; “…it can be tempting to want to show your audience everything, as evidence of all of the work you did and the robustness of the analysis. Resist the urge. Concentrate on the information your audience needs to know.”

My personal experience tells me that there is probably a balance here, in terms of what data you should include to offer context (another topic of the book, but for another time). This also translates into a spectrum of explanatory vs. exploratory.

For example, to communicate why your plan might be behind schedule, you may have to include lots of backstory data. But once that story is told, is it necessary to revisit in every visual?

After conversing with so many of our end users, I very firmly believe that there is a lack of awareness on the part of both the audience, and the creator of the plan communications, as to what type of visual is necessary. Is your audience expecting you to present them with a report, or do they intend to decide what’s important, for whatever reason? Often, I don’t think this conversation has even occurred.

Most of the time we’re simply asked by our audience (someone senior to us) to create a visual, and we just do it…we’re programmed that way. It’s important to know when it’s time to do what your told. But if we can facilitate the ability to ask “why,” we’ll have a much clearer understanding of what it is we’re trying to accomplish…what our audience wants or needs out of our plan communications.

After all, your audience has probably had absolutely no training in data visualization, communications, or graphic design. They’re just pulling on what they know, based on experience.

Simply put, it comes down to design. If we can initiate a design phase (or redesign) for our data visualizations, we’ll understand early on where our chart will sit on the explanatory vs. exploratory spectrum.

Armed with this knowledge prior to creating our visuals, we can more easily groom our data, remove what isn’t needed, and come to more effective plan communications results in OnePager.

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Written by Jay Leslie
Jay Leslie carries with him 15 years of project management experience within the cable, telecom, construction and software development industries. The spectrum of projects and programs that Jay has managed throughout his career is broad and deep, enabling him to help clients implement Chronicle Graphics software -- including OnePager -- in a multitude of applications. His employment history includes positions at Narvaes Construction, Leslie Brothers Construction, CSG Systems, Echostar Satellite Services, Comcast, and Level 3 Communications.
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