Data visualisation: what can you and your customers learn?

Mar 08, 2017

Recently, GDR Innovation Researcher Sophia Platts-Palmer attended a talk given by ‘data journalist’ and author David McCandless exploring the possibilities of data visualisation. Here, she explores how brands can harness the data at their fingertips.

“The purpose of visualization is insight, not pictures.”

Ben Shneiderman

David McCandless has achieved international acclaim creating visually arresting infographics that make legible patterns and correlations that can be obscured by the information’s surface complexity. McCandless’s background as a print journalist has informed his practice; the majority of his visualisations make sense of daunting data sets, breaking down global economics, contextualising military spending and unpicking media sensationalism, and discovering the connections between data points that only emerge when visualised. He calls himself a ‘data detective,’ dedicated to uncovering hidden stories in data. Here are a few of our favourites:

Mountains Out of Molehills: 16 years of media inflamed fears

Snake Oil Supplements: scientific evidence for popular health supplements

And, just for fun, a deep dive into London coffee shop names:


While the benefits of data visualisation in the fields of art and journalism are fascinating in their own rights, McCandless made a comment that really caught my attention. He referred to data as “The New Oil” or, as he jokes, “The New Soil;” framing it as a fertile ground where insights can grow. He went on to say that “data is a ubiquitous resource that we can shape to provide new innovations and new insights. It’s all around us, and can be mined very easily.”

This got me thinking about how brands, who have amassed vast quantities of data from all areas of their business and consumers, are using data – and if not, how they could best harness it. What ways are there to combine this deep but daunting resource with the simplifying aesthetic appeal of data visualisation, to benefit their business and customers alike?

Data could and should be the beating heart of any commercial operation, on hand to inform marketing decisions, track SKU’s, and offer insight on emerging trends. However, while big data still has a vital role at the back end of business, we are beginning to see more examples of brands bringing their data to the fore to communicate transparency, tell richer brand stories, and drive deeper customer engagement.

However, concerns about the level of information companies retain about their customers are one hurdle to overcome.

Age is a factor. A 2015 survey from the Direct Marketing Association found that millennials are becoming increasingly comfortable with data sharing. 60% of 18-24 year olds now feel more comfortable with the idea of exchanging some of their personal data with companies, with a slightly greater proportion conceding “The exchange of personal information is essential for the smooth running of modern society”.

We are entering a post-channel age, where consumers seamlessly straddle the physical and digital worlds, with a concurrent flexibility regarding data privacy. Brands can use this to their advantage by demonstrating to consumers that their data can be repurposed in a positive way – to engage and enlighten, rather than to ransom or expose. They can empower consumers, providing a deeper insight into a brand and the communities that they inspire, in the process building trust and loyalty.

In 2016 Google put their mountain of user data to good use and launched Google Trips, a data-driven app intended to sooth the pain points of travelling. The app syncs with user’s Google accounts and then scans their email inbox to scrape information about previous trips and bookings. These are then visualised chronologically within the app and suggestions are offered based on personal preferences.

Government organisations see a lot of their data visualised into digestible infographics, as their statistics are of high public interest and brands can learn from this strategy. For example, one of Ecuador’s governmental bodies, the National Institute for Statistics and Censuses (INEC), used their logo to convey data on the nation’s wellbeing in a meaningful, exciting way. The real-time data-infused logo was showcased in public spaces on digital billboards and projected onto buildings. The simplicity, transparency and inventive format captured public imagination, and INEC’s positive public perception went from 33% to 59% as a result.

Data visualisation can also add value to the customer by highlighting tribal patterns, inspiring consumers to foster a community around a brand. In 2013, UBank, the online-only subsidiary of National Australia Bank (NAB), launched a website that pulled together anonymous transaction data to identify trends, allowing users to compare their spending habits with fellow Australians.

PeopleLikeU uses data visualisation to show what similar people are spending on utilities, housing, food and drink, shopping and clothes, for instance, also giving speculative comparisons how their behaviour might change if their income was to increase. The platform was extremely popular with customers, many returning to the website to use it more than once.

Music-streaming service Spotify is continuously capitalising on its data in fun ways. A recent campaign revealed humorous listener behaviours, with one billboard reading, “Dear person who played ‘Sorry’ 42 times on Valentine’s Day – what did you do?”
According to the company’s press material,  Spotify has over 40 million subscribers across 60 international markets as of September 2016, 2 billion playlists and 30 million songs. The subscription platform has amassed this enormous following in just under a decade (opening for subscription in 2008) As a result, it has collected an almost unfathomably rich quantity of data on users, which ranges from geo-location, listening habits, industry trends and even listeners’ moods

These are just a few examples, but this is rich seam to mine. How can data be repurposed to visually enhance brands’ stories and speak directly and purposefully to their consumers? What patterns are there that are best revealed visually, rather than on a speadsheet? Is the goal to create a pretty picture, or to convey a truth? What connections are there to be made that have gone unnoticed thus far?

This is a field in its infancy, and the possibilities are limitless.

For more strong examples and inspiration, do head to David McCandless’s website.

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