3 consistently effective data visualization techniques

We all want to communicate clearly, especially when dealing with data and how it can impact decisions. I get a lot of questions from data analysts and designers looking for advice on the most direct types of data visualization; most useful to executives and non-data analysts.

Two important things to keep in mind with data visualization; you’re communicating the past, streaming the present, and if you’re confident in your work you can predict the future and prescribe solutions to manage it. Secondly, it’s important to focus on transparency, clean integrated sources and telling a clear story for credibility and effectiveness.

The 3 data visualization techniques we use most often:

  1. Comparing data over time can inform decisions

    If you have historical data (longitudinal) you can select relevant time periods to provide visual perspective with change over time, and ideally predict trends (shown as dashes).

    2021 Marketing Campaign Effectiveness for Web Augmented Reality App

    Trends are often revealed when data is presented over time.

  2. Comparing entities can yield trends

    Comparing Entities in Data Visualization with example of Student Performance vs Peer Schools vs State of Michigan.

    If the same data of entities are compared in a visually clear visualization it helps people understand similarities and differences.   In our research with users we’ve learned that comparing between 2 and 4 entities (products, schools, etc.) is ideal.

    Student Performance vs Peer Schools vs State of Michigan

    Comparing a school vs its peers gives a quick and valuable perspective.

  3. Data on geographical maps invite exploration and socialization in a known mental model

    Data on a map or well-known diagram can be visually explored and shared, bringing data right into our lives. We use it daily with Google/Bing Maps (Pin Maps), real estate, schools, health (Bubble, Dot and Choropleth Maps) and travel (Route, Flow and Connection Maps). and weather (Isoline Maps). Select wisely because busy maps are difficult to use.

    Example of Data Visualization showing routes and location density in a bubble and chloropleth map

    This map and timeline tell a story about the homeless and their journeys on busses. It leverages both Connection and Bubble Maps to show the path and density.


Final Thoughts on data visualization best practices

Our recommendations are a result of our experience creating data visualization for reports and dashboards, talking to users, and helping organizations such as Steelcase, Ford, Michigan Department of Education, Amway, Spectrum Health, Traeger and others tell clear stories that describe, diagnose, predict and prescribe.  We hope this is useful as you’re preparing to create visual reports for your stakeholders and end-users. Let us know if you have any questions or ideas.


  • UX Matters: The Power of Comparison: How It Affects Decision Making – “People do not make judgments and decisions in a vacuum. They make them against a backdrop of available options. And a choice set—what the options are and how they relate to each other—is an important aspect of the context in which they make decisions.”
  • Comparison and choice: Relations between similarity processes and decision processes – “We prefer to think of this discussion as the beginning of the story rather than the end. There seem to be clear correspondences between similarity judgments and decision making. Critics may argue that we have given insufficient attention to differences between the two do-mains, and no doubt we are guilty of focusing on their alignable attributes and relations. Therefore, like George Miller (1956), we should withhold judgment as to whether these parallels are deep and profound. Nevertheless, in our opinion, they are provocative.”
Written by