Data, Meet Design

 How does storytelling happen? Someone has an idea, consults a variety of human and electronic sources, sifts through the information he or she has collected, extracts the meaningful parts, and distills them into a narrative. Of course, the process is often much more circuitous than this, but a successful story must cross each of these hurdles.

Data analysis helps journalists find compelling story ideas, identify additional sources to consult, and extract meaning. But how to ensure that readers and viewers grasp that meaning and understand the significance of the work? By paying attention to design.

Half of Americans get their news digitally (through online, mobile, social networking, email, or podcasts), and that number is going to grow. To a data storyteller, that means crafting a narrative for the digital environment and then, for non-online only outlets, adapting it to the print or broadcast product.

All journalists, not just data storytellers, must, as Martin Belam writes, “think reader, not editor.”

  • Attention: Why would a reader be interested in this narrative? rather than, What does my editor want to see?
  • Value: What will the reader hope to learn from this piece? rather than, What does my editor think is important?
  • User Experience: How can the reader dig into this data and uncover more insight? rather than, I’ll hand this database off to the web person to post it on the website.

For data storytellers, this means thinking about the best way to present data, whether a simple spreadsheet or a time-lapsed bubble graph. It means thinking about whether to create a static infographic or an interactive data visualization. (Stay tuned for updates on my experience in the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas’ online course, “Introduction to Infographics and Data Visualization.”)

The way information is presented significantly impacts the way people use it. If a website doesn’t load quickly, users will click away. If a user has to constantly scroll horizontally on a mobile screen because the text didn’t automatically adjust, the user will click away. Solving these problems takes design and coding savvy; if that sounds like you, check out the looming challenge of responsive design, or creating interfaces that optimize for viewing on any device.

Focusing on design doesn’t mean turning into a graphic designer or a web developer. It simply means thinking intentionally about the tools at hand and selecting the ones that ones best convey your narrative. Good writers write for their audience. Good designers design for their users. Good journalists need to do both.

Design forms the second leg of my concentration in Data Storytelling (data analysis being the first). Through coursework in graphic design, interaction design, and information visualization, I learn how people want to see information.  

What engaging presentations of data have you encountered? Presentations that fell flat? Share them in the comments below.

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