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sfew

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Reply with quote  #1 
The purpose of this new topic is to present a way that quantitative displays can be categorized into types based primarily on the purposes for which they are used. I'm planning to write an article or blog post on this topic, but wanted to get your feedback to help me think it through first.

Thanks,

Steve

 

 

We present quantitative information for various purposes, and each purpose requires that we design displays in particular ways to achieve particular outcomes. Excluding those that are used for mathematical purposes (e.g., a mathematical proof), we display quantitative information for four fairly distinct purposes.

 

Purpose #1: Lookup

 

Displays of this type, often called operational reports, are used to look up numbers that are needed to do one’s work. As such, they are usually designed as tables.

 

This is the type of display that business intelligence (BI) products have primarily provided in the form of production reports. Displays of this type do not directly support the primary purpose of BI, which is decision making. Instead, looking up facts that are needed to do one’s job is an operational task that rarely requires decisions, for the appropriate actions are prescribed.

 

Purpose #2: Narrative

 

Displays of this type are used to explain, inform, or persuade. A particular story needs to be told that is based in part on quantitative data. Displays of this type combine words, numbers, and images. They are sometimes presented live in meetings or recorded for later viewing, but are more often presented in documents. Infographics that involve numbers are a written form of quantitative narrative that combines text and graphics to tell a story.

 

Purpose #3: Monitoring

 

Displays of this type support one or both of the following purposes: 1) Maintaining awareness of what’s going on and how well things are doing, and 2) reporting situations that require action, either to correct a problem or take advantage of an opportunity. As such, displays of this type may prompt and support decisions.

 

Purpose #4: Analysis

 

Displays of this type support one or more of the following analytical purposes: 1) data exploration to find facts of potential interest, and 2) data sensemaking (a.k.a., data analysis or descriptive statistics) to determine what facts mean, and 3) data prediction (a.k.a., predictive analysis or predictive statistics) to anticipate what might happen in the future given specific conditions, based on an understanding of what has happened in the past. Data prediction requires an understanding of probability theory and the ability to build probability models.  Understanding is the immediate goal of these activities. The ultimate goal is to improve decisions and the actions that follow. The lines that distinguish displays that are designed for these complementary analytical purposes are not rigid. A single display can serve multiple purposes, but any one of these purposes can often be best served by a display that was specifically designed to suit that particular purpose well.

 

Factors other than the purpose of the displays (i.e., what they are used to do) can also influence their design, including the display platform (e.g., a large screen on a desktop vs. a smaller mobile device such as a smartphone) and the skills of the user. The purpose of the display, however, is the primary factor that informs its design.

 


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Stephen Few
grasshopper

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Reply with quote  #2 

Under 'Monitoring', would there need to be a distinction between real-time monitoring (such as a manager looking at the operational data of the production line they're in charge of), versus longer-term monitoring (such as a CEO monitoring the health of the company by looking at their yearly, quarterly, or monthly dashboard?)

sfew

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Reply with quote  #3 
Grasshopper,

Yes, when elaborating on these types, I will differentiate real-time monitoring displays from those that are updated on a daily basis because differences in design are required. In my opinion, a display that is updated less often than daily rarely qualifies as a true monitoring display but would fit more into the lookup or narrative categories.

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Stephen Few
DataInAction

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Reply with quote  #4 
A couple thoughts:

1) Are there quantitative displays that have a primary purpose simply to entertain?  (Quick USA Today junk charts)  In your breakdown I guess you could classify these as narrative?

2) I often run across displays that mix lookup and monitoring.  The dashboard may have lots of charts or tables about overall status but then have one section, usually called "Alerts" which highlights items that are out of the ordinary or require action.

3) I'm not 100% sure what you mean by a narrative "display".  Based on your description it sounds like (for example) a PowerPoint presentation where an analyst has pulled portions of other types of displays/reports to help make a point.  Is this a display type in and of itself or simply a way of organizing other displays?  Maybe an example might help me understand what you mean.

Just my 2 cents.
sfew

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Reply with quote  #5 

DataInAction,

Thanks so much for your questions and comments. They are far more valuable than “2 cents.” Here are my responses:

  1. Although quantitative displays that intend primarily to entertain do exist, unless they also manage to inform in a useful way, I don’t think they’re worth mentioning. Those that manage to entertain and inform fall into the “narrative” category.
  2. Displays often combine the purposes that I’ve listed (e.g., monitoring and lookup), which is often useful. When I write about this in my blog or in an article, I’ll be careful to mention this fact.
  3. By “narrative” I’m referring to any display that is primarily designed to communicate meanings that you’ve discovered in quantitative data to others. Distinct from using a display to lookup facts, to monitor what’s going on, or to explore and make sense of data, narrative displays are used to tell specific stories contained in data. As such, they are primarily about communication. As such, they assume that you the communicator already have uncovered and understand the story and now wish to pass it on to others in the clearest and most useful way possible.

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Stephen Few
jodwilso

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Reply with quote  #6 
In this political season, it's worth mentioning a sub-group of Narrative: To Distort and Mislead.

Although this sub-group technically falls under 'Narrative', it's against the spirit of the definition that you've laid out.
sfew

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Reply with quote  #7 
Hi jodwilso,

You're correct, of course. Charts that serve the purpose of distorting and misleading information are prevalent enough to warrant a category of their own, but we'll leave them out as illegitimate.


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Stephen Few
dnguyen

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Reply with quote  #8 
Steve,
I am also wondering how we can fit quantitative information used in social media into this mix. I know it's a medium to help us achieve one of the purposes you highlighted. However, at the same time, I know it's more than that. Let's use Twitter as an example. Obviously, it's simple yet limited for obvious reason (text limit to 140 characters). Nonetheless, its effectiveness (as we can see over the past few years) is undoubtedly powerful!
It's been used to do the following:
- to enrage
- to persuade
- to inform
- to monitor
- to lie
- to call for action
- to plead for help (in desperated situation)
- others?
The thing about Twitter that gets me thinking is the fact that Twitter messages at times contain quantitative information, links to other mediums containing contitative information that also do any of the above. Also, another observation to consider is the fact that those Twitter messages were not carefully thought through.
My apology if I am getting this off topic.
sfew

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Reply with quote  #9 
dnuguyen,

As I see it, social media is a potential context for quantitative displays, not a purpose for which they are used. The specific cases that you listed, with the exception of "to monitor," all fit into the category of narrative.

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Stephen Few
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