How to create a terrible visualization


The last couple of visualizations I've done have been complete flops, at least in terms of traffic. A geeky post about my profiling habits got more visitors than a shiny 3D globe! It's never fun to confront it but as Bob Sutton says; 'failure sucks but instructs'. In that spirit, here's what I learned about how to create an unpopular visualization: 

Tell lots of stories at once

I love exploring complex data sets, but it takes a lot of effort and time. Most people are looking for a quick insight, something catchy, unexpected, but obvious once you see it. Unless you have a one-sentence message that you can get across in the first few seconds, the audience will move on. The two really popular visualizations I built (the Five Nations of Facebook and the iPhone tracking app) had a strong, simple story attached. The most recents ones have been exploratory tools without much of a narrative behind them.

Focus on the technology

I'm completely technology-driven. My starting point is always finding interesting but unused data, and trying to bring it to light as a visualization. That often involves creating new techniques to capture and show the information, but my weakness is that I'll often fall in love with those techniques, at the expense of the end result. With the globe, I rely completely on WebGL, so only people with Chrome or Firefox on a non-mobile device could view it. I get excited just by the idea of being able to run complex 3D rendering inside of a browser from Javascript, but I know that leaves me in a minority.

Advanced technology like that is essential for a strong visualization, but you need something more on top. Often having a static image of the result is the most powerful product, if you can impress people with that it means you have a story that doesn't require them to interact with a tool to understand. I'd actually had my Facebook visualization out for a couple of weeks as an interactive service with almost no visitors. It was only when I created a throwaway blog post with a screenshot and some funny names that it reached millions of people.

Copy a previous success

People pass a link to their friends if they think it's remarkable, something they've not seen before. That means that the bar keeps getting higher and it's very hard to repeat an approach that worked before and get the same results. A couple of years ago there weren't very many online visualizations, so it was a lot easier to get noticed. I've been excited to see so many amazing projects appear recently, as a visualization fan it's been a golden age, but it does mean the competition is a lot stiffer. You need to build something above and beyond what's already been done to get noticed.   

Leave out the magic

One of the things I love about creating visualizations is that it's more art than a science. There is no formula for success, and the only way I know to make progress is to follow my own curiosity. A visualization really taking off depends on dozens of things all going right, so the whole process does feel like magic sometimes. At heart I'm building them for my own enjoyment, and I hope that comes out in the results. People do seem to respond to a sense of fun, and the best way to create a boring visualization is to force one out.

In the past I've effectively been goofing off when I was working on a new graph, procrastinating on my real work, but these days my responsibility for Jetpac is always in the back of my mind. That has cramped my imagination, so I'll be trying to get back to my footloose and fancy-free roots and worry less about traffic. I can't guarantee a more whimsical approach will give more interesting visualizations, but I know for sure I'll be having more fun!

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