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The Shape of Deeper Insight: A Data Visualization Case Study

by Bitsy Bentley , 20.06.2012

When my colleague Alana Washington and I set out to visualize trends among the top US market research companies, all we had were a few numbers. The result has just been published in the Honomichl Top 50 issue of AMA’s Marketing News, and we couldn’t be more proud.

As with any good visualization, the imagery is both dictated by the raw information and also enhances it – pulling out new insights. Turning numbers into lines, and then into storylines, is our job.

The Honomichl graphic includes contextual and qualitative data that simply cannot be found in a table of numbers. Even if you are not consciously aware of the color palette, you cannot help but notice how volatility and acquisition (mingling colors) in the 1990s have given way to stability and more organic growth since 2003.

Your mind can choose which story to follow in the graphic; it works at both macro and micro levels. You can pull in and see the narratives of the individual companies, or lean back to get a sense of the industry as a whole. If you didn’t know anything about the MR marketplace, this would give you a clear idea of who are the major players and how they have evolved.

Alana started this graphic by charting the top level of growth and ranking in the Honomichl data; but she wanted to tell a bigger story. She wanted to show the relationships of these different parts to one another – and additional research is no small part of making a better visualization. It’s about surfacing the right evidence. I am not a fan of cherry picking; I would rather show all the data.

When you consider what we have encoded here, there is a lot of additional contextual information you wouldn’t get from something one-dimensional. The core data is there, and it’s easier to understand – that is goal 1; but then there are other angles to study. The color choices, for example, help you grasp intuitively how things are evolving, and at what pace.

I love timelines – they tell stories that are so engaging, and there is a very personal aspect – “What was I doing in 1997?” I see this graphic as a kind of oral history. There have been many shakeups; even though the major players remain consistent, the only true constant is change. Our visualization shows how much motion there is.

In some ways, we are visual storytelling editors. When you’re trying to come up with a story about how different parts relate, we can provide guidance. We can help the story that you’re trying to tell be more enduring than simply words on a page or a table of numbers. Sometimes a table is all you need – but providing this deeper level of context is very powerful.

Contact me (bitsy.bentley@gfk.com) or your GfK representative to learn if data visualization might enhance your next GfK project.