How Communicating Analytics Is Like New York City
By Tim Wilson on in Data Visualization with 6 Comments
I joined a new company, Clearhead, at the beginning of September, and it’s been a fun-tiring-exciting ride thus far (unfortunately, it hasn’t been a particularly prolific one with respect to this site!). One of the core tenets of the company – something that we are all passionate about because we have all seen it go horribly awry – is that we will always deliver information in a way that is clear, concise, (as) simple (as possible), and elegant. There’s a reason I have Data Visualization as one of the categories for this blog – I’ve long believed that there is an inordinate amount of incomprehensible charts, graphs, and tables being emailed and presented by analysts and marketers. We. Need. To. Do. Better! (as an industry).
Same Idea, but From Another Angle
So…shift to my recent trip to New York City. I was with the co-founders of the company, Matt and Ryan, who were both long-time New York City residents before moving to Austin (Ryan is a San Antonio native and has an affinity for The Big Apple that I find both baffling and moderately traitorous…but I’m sure that is a phase that will pass in due time as he gets re-acquainted with Austin). The last apartment Ryan lived in before returning to the Lone Star State was at 21st and 1st.
That’s important, so I’m going to write it again (I could make it really big and bold, but it’s not that kind of important, so we’ll just go with italics): Ryan lived in an apartment at 21st and 1st.
Here’s what’s interesting about that statement: you just read it, and you will be able to place yourself in one – and only one – of the two following groups:
- You immediately knew that he lived in Midtown Manhattan (Midtown East, even) and had a mental image, if not of the exact intersection, then of a street/building/intersection reasonably near by
- You registered the location mentally as “somewhere in New York City.”
I’ve now been to that exact apartment – and to that intersection – several times…and I still fall in the latter category. That’s not because I’m particularly slow or non-observant. It’s because I’ve never lived in New York, have never spent more than 4 consecutive days there, and have only rarely needed to get around the the city on my own, rather than simply tagging along with a local.
In short, I don’t speak “areas of Manhattan” with any degree of fluency. I cognitively know that the “Lower East Side” is generally towards the bottom and to the right of a north-oriented map of the island. But, I can’t tell you the vibe and character of that area. I can’t tell you what the main landmarks are there. I can’t tell you what the main thoroughfares are that bisect the area.
Now, you have read the past couple of paragraphs and thought one of two things:
- “Seriously? He knows nothing about the Lower East Side other than what the three words ‘lower,’’ east,’ and ‘side’ describe?”
- “Why is Tim belaboring this? Obviously – he hasn’t spent a lot of time in the city, so he doesn’t really intuitively know what is where.”
What’s interesting (borderline fascinating, really, if you’re into brain stuff) is that one of the statements above made total sense to you, and the other one seemed totally foreign. It’s like listening to a couple of people having an animated conversation in a foreign (to you) language. They are clearly communicating without any effort whatsoever, and, yet, it is insanely difficult to actually imagine how what sounds like fast-paced gibberish to you could possibly be clearly transmitting very real information and ideas.
The key, in both cases, is that everyone’s brain is wired differently, and the synaptic paths that have been traversed hundreds of times with different visual and experiential reinforcement (the Lower East Side, daily conversation in German, etc.) by one person have barely been traveled at all by others.
And, Yes, I Have a Point to All of This
As analysts, when we discuss, visualize, or present data, we are often the equivalent of a native New Yorker coordinating a visit with someone raised in Sour Lake, Texas (such as yours truly). Just as Matt and Ryan quickly learned that they could not skip any steps in guiding me from JFK to 23rd and 3rd, as analysts, we have to work really hard to speak in the visual language of the people to whom we’re delivering information. We have to minimize “the data” that gets presented and maximize “the meaning.”
The next time you get a blank look from someone to whom you are delivering the results of an analysis, stop and ask yourself if it’s because you’re a native New Yorker talking to someone who only visits occasionally. It’s not a knock against that person at all – the onus is on the native to be a good host and to figure out the best way to present the information in a way that it can be quickly and simply received.