When Should I Use Data Visualizations in Writing My Report?

As you progress in your data and statistical research skills, you will become more comfortable analyzing and presenting data in table format or in writing, which represents a wonderful growth in confidence in working with data. However, recognizing when data visualizations should be used instead of, or in addition to, describing statistical results in tables or in writing is also an important skill to develop. Data visualizations simplify complex information into understandable knowledge, and in this way, can add meaning to the numbers.

Data visualizations are appropriate in a variety of situations. Below we have outlined a handful that you are likely to come across throughout your academic and professional careers. These reflect common scenarios and are not all-encompassing.

  • Data visualizations are best for the non-savvy data audience. As mentioned in a previous topic, always consider your audience. Think about what their comfort level is with data and whether they have the time, knowledge, or even interest to dig into the meaning behind the numbers. In these cases, a data visualization can add context. This scenario is not uncommon in professional situations where stakeholders are interested in clear information that will help them make informed and speedy decisions. In contrast a research committee may be interested in looking at the detail of the dataset you handled, and in this case, a table may be best suited. Be sure to be attuned to your audience's expectations.

  • Data visualizations are ideal when you need to reinforce your argument with lots of information that can be simplified. Showing can be just as powerful as telling. Writing about the takeaway of your research and analysis allows you to be direct and concise; however, marrying that text with a visual representation of the data that underpins your case can help reinforce your conclusions without the reader getting lost in a listing of datapoints. As always, you must be sure to accurately and honestly represent the data!

  • Data visualizations help you explain patterns and nuances. When we work with data and statistics, we are usually looking for patterns and relationships among the data variables relevant to the research topic. Explaining the "What" of the pattern or relationship can be very efficient in writing (e.g., it often rains when it's cloudy), but data visualizations help demonstrate the extent and the nuances of patterns and relationships (e.g., What was the percentage of cloud cover when it most often rained? How much rain fell compared to other time periods or locations? Does increasing cloud coverage equate to increasing rain?). Patterns and nuances can be reinforced by using visualizations that illustrate the different factors that informed your overall conclusion.

  • Data visualizations spice up formal presentations. Have you ever had to sit in on presentations that are all bullet points and text? It's not the most thrilling experience, is it? Incorporating data visualizations may not have your audience begging for an encore, but they certainly may help keep your audience engaged because it encourages them to look, absorb, and interpret the visualization in front of them while also listening to or reading your words.

In practice, these scenarios may all apply whether you are working with simple charts such as a trend chart or more advanced visualizations. Consider the Datavized case study video below and how the group was challenged to present global air pollution in an understandable and engaging format using their virtual reality (VR) technology.

Source: Anderson, D., McGrory, H., & Chirls, B. (Speaker). (2019). Developing innovative data visualizations for social change: datavized [Video]. Sage Research Methods Video: Data Science, Big Data Analytics, and Digital Methods https://www.doi.org/10.4135/9781526493293