DIAL LOG

Storytelling and Data Visualization: Q&A with Market Strategies’ Senior Information Designer Derrak Richard

Derrak Richards storytellingWe’ve been covering different angles of the interesting relationship between storytelling and market research on the DIAL.LOG blog and here’s another one—visual storytelling. Market Strategies’ Derrak Richard, an expert in making data pop, recently authored a blog post offering up insights and tips on the creation and use of infographics for market research reporting. That got us thinking about visual storytelling, so we reached out to Derrak to get his take and expand upon his points from the blog post.

Q: Can you explain your role at Market Strategies?

Derrak: My role is to promote effective and efficient communication of data. We do that with all different forms of data, from presentations to report fielding. We work with report automation and web deliverables. Anything that has to do with data and has the need to be visualized is something my team and I work on.

Q: For so many years, market research deliverables were nothing but tedious PowerPoint decks. Your work seems to be at the forefront of a major shift in how data are visualized and presented. What took so long for that shift to occur and what is being presented now?

Derrak: I think in some ways, the reason it was like that was because everyone just defaulted to PowerPoint to communicate their data, and with that, comes certain ways of showing the data with the charts and graphs native to PowerPoint. Maybe people weren’t giving as much thought to the end result of what they were giving the client as they should have. It’s pretty easy to make the boring decks on PowerPoint that simply turn out the results of every question. It takes significantly more time and effort to draw out the story within that data.

Today, it’s all about storytelling and infographics, and visuals are a key part of that. All researchers want to connect the reader with the data, and that’s what data visualizations and storytelling can do. But finding the story is the key. The infographics and other visuals are on top of that, helping to communicate an already good story. I’m sure the shift had something to do with the growing competition within the research field, which has led to a greater focus on better deliverables.

“All researchers want to connect the reader with the data, and that’s what data visualizations and storytelling can do.”

Q: How does data visualization facilitate storytelling and make research more impactful?

Derrak: The main point in my blog post is that data visualization doesn’t hold up well if the story from the data doesn’t exist. I suggest in the article to write out the story in words, not just bullet points. Make sure there is an actual story. Make sure when you read that narrative you aren’t missing any points and it flows from one paragraph to next. That’s what makes a good infographic; the infographic is just the icing on the cake. The foundation of that cake is the story, and that needs to come first.

Q: Can you describe how infographics fit into the category of data visualization?

Derrak: Data visualization is the broader category of putting images to data; there are a variety of methods to create images, graphs and charts from data.  A sub-section of that is infographics. An infographic is making a graphic from a story. An infographic has a higher design quality to it. I could make a PowerPoint of the same information and it could possibly get the same message or story across. Both are data visualizations, but they are different.

I’d like to think of data visualization as the little black dress—it has stuck around for many years because it’s simple and serves a purpose, whereas fashion trends come and go. Infographics are very trendy right now.

“I’d like to think of data visualization as the little black dress—it has stuck around for many years because it’s simple and serves a purpose…”

Q: In reading your post, you seem to still be somewhat of an infographic skeptic. Has your mindset changed and if so, what was the catalyst?

Derrak: I think in a lot of ways I’m still a skeptic. If you think of data visualization on a spectrum compared to food, infographics are like the candy. The meat and potatoes are the well-written reports with data and background in them. They serve two different purposes. Just as you wouldn’t eat candy all day—getting your data only from infographics is going to leave you malnourished.

There are certainly some cases, where candy will hit the spot—infographics, for example, can be very effective for marketing materials or for situations where you’re presenting study results to broader (non-research-y) audiences as they can encapsulate important elements of a story in a visual way that makes it much easier to “digest” and remember.

When clients come to me asking for an infographic, what I think a lot of them are really asking for is a way to connect the data to their audience. So, for me, “Infographic” has become a code word for finding a way to connect the data to the reader and make it more emotional or human.

Q: What are some of your sources for inspiration and can you share (or point us to) some examples of what you think are particularly strong data visuals?

Derrak: One source is the Swedish doctor, academic and professional speaker Hans Rosling. If you watch his TED Talk, you’ll see it’s quite an endearing speech about data visualization. What makes that video and other speeches of his so compelling is the way he creates the narrative and ties that into human emotion.

Q: How about some words of wisdom (or caution!) to help others when contemplating using data visualization?

Derrak: Learn the rules first before you break them. I think when infographics came out and people started to design them, it was almost like they thought they had invented something new. Charting, graphing and data visualization have been around for a long time. There are best practices of how to do them. Read Edward Tufte’s book The Visual Display of Quantitative Information or Stephen Few’s books.

“When infographics came out and people started to design them, it was almost like they thought they had invented something new. Charting, graphing and data visualization have been around for a long time.”

Know that in a lot of ways you are not blazing new ground and the best practices have already been developed. There are better types of graphs to use than others.  Also know that there are ways to mislead people through data visualizations. Being aware of these things will lead to better data visualizations and more impactful storytelling, and on the flip side, if you break the rules you will know the impact of your design choices.

Q: What are the next big things in this area?

I think the storyline really matters, and right now, the people making the best stories are data journalists. I think those of us in market research see data journalism but don’t know how it can apply to us. In fact, it can and should.

Probably the best examples of data journalism are from The New York Times; they call it, “Interactive Storytelling.” They have a textual story but then supplement it with videos, graphs, data and explore-able charts where people can dig deeper into the numbers. Another example is a piece by The Seattle Times on manufactured housing. These are great examples of data journalism at work. People should look for more of this coming in the market research industry, and it’s where I’d like to see us go. I could see this being the top line for research reporting—where reports read like in-depth news articles and offer the ability for readers to dig deeper into the data where they may need to.

Big thanks to Derrak for sharing his insights. To hear more from Derrak and his colleagues at Market Strategies, please check out their blog FreshMR.

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