Data Storytelling: Learning to Design Data Stories

Published on
June 15, 2021
Ann-Louise Kathrin Gaynor
Experience Engineer

One of the greatest challenges in Experience Design is data storytelling.

At first glance, data and stories seem to be two completely different things. Data involves facts and objectivity; they appeal to logic. Stories, on the other hand, are more subjective and personal; they appeal to emotion.

But according to Stephen Frew, who spent 25 years working with data,

“Numbers have an important story to tell. They rely on you to give them a clear and convincing voice.”

Behind all the numbers, is a story waiting to be shared... and sadly, it is seldom told. This was a mistake I frequently made when I first started designing our insights features in Viana

Being an experience designer first gave me a baseline focus, which is for users to use interfaces easily, intuitively, and pleasantly every step of the way. Although after that, I was not quite sure what to do next. The charts I initially designed looked pleasant to the eye and showed what the data was looking like visually, but I wasn’t sure how to give the data a voice. What did it even mean to give the data a “voice”? And why is it so important to give it a voice? Were stories and data really interconnected?

I had a lot to learn when designing for data stories.

Chapter 1: Designing a New Mindset

It is natural to not like or be uncomfortable with what you do not know.

As someone who struggled with mathematics for most of their life, I did not like numbers and data at all. I did not understand them or their appeal. It was this way of thinking that gave me my first challenge as a designer tasked to tell a data story: 

How do I detach myself from the mentality that there was no appeal in numbers and data? 

I needed to look at data differently. I had soon realized that data is actually everywhere, it’s our experiences with the things and people we interact with! Our past experiences fuel our decision making. For instance, how one might avoid hitting the snooze button due to past experiences of oversleeping. Or something more serious like deciding whether to drop a marketing campaign or not.

Just like our experiences, data enables us to make informed decisions. And, what could be more appealing than being able to make a well-informed decision? 

Chapter 2: Designing to Empower

With a new mindset and a newfound appreciation for data, I now realize that there is power in making good decisions. Providing actionable insights to our users will empower them to make informed decisions. 

With Viana, we took empowering our users to a whole new level by providing them with not just reports but also a data playground called X-Ray. The idea came from wanting our users to feel the same way we do about data. We wanted them to be just as excited about data and to be able to explore and extract insights just like we do. With the guidance of experience design and data visualization, X-Ray empowers users with dashboards that are easy to understand, navigate and filter through. Who says data exploration is just for the experts?

X-Ray empowers users with dashboards that are easy to understand, navigate and filter through.

Empowerment is a two-way street. Through Viana, I can empower users, and in doing so, I feel empowered as well. And boy oh boy, does it feel good!

Chapter 3: Designing to Impact

With a change of perspective and the drive to empower, I came to understand what Stephen Frew said about giving data a voice. To give data and its insights a voice is for them to be heard and understood. And the best way to be heard is through telling a story. 

If you look closely, there are usually three elements present within a set of data: a setting, a conflict, and a resolution. Sounds familiar? It’s the exact same setup as a story. Within a dataset is a timeline of what happened (setting), why something happened (conflict), and what you do to stop or continue this trend in data (resolution).

Data and stories are connected. Brent Dykes, in his 2020 Forbes article on data storytellers, explains so well why giving data a voice is important:

“If people don’t grasp an insight’s significance or aren’t convinced of its utility, the insight will fall by the wayside and never drive any value.”

It would be such a shame for an impactful insight to be denied action, but it is even far worse when it is denied any attention. To give data a voice means to give it a chance to be heard and understood, and the best way to do that is through stories. Stories stay with us. Stories leave an impact on us. Good stories are unforgettable and good data insights are as valuable as gold. Combining the two will give you a data story that appeals to both intellect and emotion – making it far more memorable, impactful, and personal to whoever reads it.

Chapter 4: Designing What’s Next

Learning how to tell stories with data is a continuous journey. I have a lot left to learn but working on Viana insights has allowed me to have a new mindset towards data and a desire to empower and make an impact through data. What’s left now is to just keep moving onto the next story!

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