There are times in life and business when you have to decide whether or not to “do it yourself” or call in a professional. You may be quite capable of unclogging a sink or changing your oil, but is your time best spent replacing all the pipes in your house or changing out your transmission? Doing it yourself and hiring a professional are each valuable ways of getting work done, but each method is best in certain situations. The same concept is true for data visualization development.

When you’re looking to enhance the impact of your data’s story through data visualization, you have two options:

    1. Use a data visualization software tool

  1. Hire a data visualization specialist or firm

Both have a place in visualization development – the key is understanding which works better for your specific project requirements.

What Type of Data Visualization Do You Need?

Before a decision can be considered about the most appropriate way to execute a data visualization, it’s important to understand the different ways a visualization can be used. These considerations will be essential to understanding which method will work best for you:

    • How large is the target audience? – A visualization created for a very large audience (like web visitors) will require different consideration and tools from a visualization designed for a small audience (like a committee reviewing a report).

    • How knowledgeable is the target audience? – A different visualization should be created for an audience that can be expected to know the background on the data than for one who cannot.

  • How long is the visualization intended to last? – If a visualization is intended for marketing or wide distribution, it requires a different development process than one intended for a single presentation.

When is Data Visualization Software Most Appropriate?

There are a number of tools that can create data visualizations – from basic charts in Excel to significantly more sophisticated products like Tableau and MicroStrategy, to entry level free products like IBM’s Many Eyes. These make it possible to create a data visualization relatively quickly and (once the software has been purchased) at a lower cost.

These advantages make visualization software potentially ideal for visualizations that:

    • Are telling a straightforward data story

    • Are designed for a small, well-informed audience

    • Are designed for a one-off project or report

It’s the “quick and dirty” nature of these software tools that allows for visualizations to be rapidly created and, just as quickly, discarded. In any situation when your visualization could be considered “disposable,” then a software suite is an ideal way to create it.

What Are the Limitations of Visualizations Designed with Data Visualization Software?

Essentially, there are three limitations to using data visualization software tools and they all stem from the fact that the software package needs to be general enough to function for a wide user-base.

Limited Design Flexibility
Because of the generic nature of data visualization software, users are limited to working with visualization templates that require a pre-defined set of metrics. Available choices for elements like Y-axis, color or other visualization variables are limited.

When your data is capable of being adequately represented by these constraints, this isn’t a problem – it’s when data is more complex or tells a multi-layered story that this limitation becomes a true hindrance.

Limited Data Format Flexibility
Data visualization software tools are limited in the data formats they can work with. Depending on how data was gathered and compiled, it may need to be re-formatted to accommodate the requirements of the software (a time-consuming and, often, tedious task).

Lack of Insight Generation
The final challenge associated with using data visualization software comes down to knowing what you want to say. While software suites will allow you to do many calculations rapidly and present you with a visualization of those results, they won’t tell you which comparisons actually provide meaning.

A data analyst can use these software tools to understand and develop insights. For companies that don’t employ analysts or otherwise don’t have one available, a visualization suite offers only limited usefulness.

When Is Engaging a Firm for Custom Visualization Development Most Appropriate?

If visualization software is the “do it yourself” option, then hiring a data visualization firm is like hiring an expert. Because you’re working with experienced data analysts and information designers, the process tends to yield a more compelling visualization that is capable of demonstrating complex, multi-layered data concepts in an engaging and insightful way.

Retaining a firm for your visualization is most appropriate when your visualization:

    • Is intended for mass consumption

    • Is intended to educate or explain a concept

    • Is a product

    • Is intended for marketing or other business development purposes

  • Uses data that is beyond the scope of traditional data sets or data representation (and otherwise would require extensive data re-formatting or might have to be “squeezed” into a template that doesn’t adequately convey the “story” your information should tell)

Boost Insight: Whether the audience is external or internal, that audience’s background knowledge about the information you are presenting is a crucial consideration. As a rule of thumb, the less that your audience knows ahead of time about the subject matter being visualized, the more a visualization firm can help.

Both methods of creating visualizations have a role to play in managing and presenting data. Data visualization software tools are the right instrument when you need something quick and it doesn’t have to do a lot more than explain a single point. When you require something more significant from your visualization, however, it’s time to use an experienced team of data and design professionals to make your life easier and your final results something that will have the impact you require.

How can we help you with Data Visualization?