Big data visualization: five ways to bring sexy to your data

Bryan Hill

Cadient Group

Bryan Hill discusses ways in which you can increase the appeal of your data, through mediums such as colour, size and orientation, and then adding heat maps, word clouds and experiential design to attract further attention. He also explores the differences types of data personalities.

Is your data looking to connect with that certain someone who just “gets them” completely? Perhaps it’s the executive in the corner office who’s looking for data that provides insight to drive investments. Maybe it’s a doctor who’s been looking for a concise story of therapy management to better educate and treat patients. If profiles like these sound like a match for your data, perhaps it’s time to sexy up your data’s cold exterior with the latest visualization techniques to connect with these potential knowledge suitors sooner.

It’s not that your data lacks meaning or purpose — however, in today’s fast-paced, 140-character world, we need to bypass “the getting-to-know-you phase” and advance the relationship quickly to share a clear understanding of what your data is all about. First impressions are everything — and to appear dense, complex, or boring is a sure fire way to have your data overlooked or ignored.


“…perhaps it’s time to sexy up your data’s cold exterior with the latest visualization techniques to connect with these potential knowledge suitors sooner.”


What follows is a guide to a full-on data makeover that will draw attention from all comers and drive the desire to engage for a deeper understanding of what your data represents. Creating that mass appeal for your data starts with identifying your data’s personality.

What is your data’s personality?

Your data has a personality profile that will determine the best visualization style to present the data to target audiences. For simplicity, there are two dominant personality types when it comes to data — structured and unstructured.

Structured data is very facts and figures oriented, loves a routine, and demands order at all times. Analytic reports, financial figures, and ROI models are great examples of this data that can be at times misunderstood due to their contextual and complex nature. Suitors for this data can also be easily intimidated, so the key to unleashing common appeal of structured data is to shorten the “getting-to-know-you phase by removing the barriers to interpretation presented by numbers, algorithms, and contextual nuance.

Unstructured data is rich with information, unpredictable, and completely devoid of order — which may scare some away, while only confusing others. Media reports, social dialogs, brand, and product information are all types of unstructured data. Peeling away the layers of tedious attributes within the deep mines of information and focusing on the signals of interest will release your unstructured data’s inner beauty — getting the point across with audiences quickly and clearly.

Tools of the trade

Now that you know what you’re dealing with here, take a look at some basic beautification tools that every data artist can leverage to make your data captivate:

• Color can be used to draw attention to certain attributes and help define correlation

• Size can be used to illustrate quantity

• Orientation can define patterns and help project trends

• Iconography uses visual metaphors to tame dense words or complex concepts with imagery

Armed with these instruments of data appeal, you can apply a visualization style that best communicates the essence of your data to your target audience.


“Your data has a personality profile that will determine the best visualization style to present the data to target audiences.”


1. Indices

Simplify performance measurement with indices that leverage signals (individual metrics) from multiple sources within formulas that produce a barometer of good and bad. Consider the use of Dow Jones Industrial Average to indicate directionally how the financial market is doing. Rather than investigate the performance of 30 companies, we use this rollup average to guide our financial planning.

Another example is the Klout Score. Incorporating more than 400 signals from several different social media outlets, Klout produces a score between 1 and 100 that represents your influence.

Key applications include:

• Corporate scorecards for monitoring financial, sales, and marketing performance

• Competitive and industry benchmarks to show market reach and customer behaviors for multi-channel marketing campaigns

• Influence scores for key opinion leaders (KOLs)

2. Maps

In addition to geographic conditions, maps can be used to represent a business landscape, the people and things existing within the landscape, and the relationships between those people, things and underlying landscape.

Key applications include:

• Heat maps illustrating prevalence of disease geographically

• Influence maps depicting the strength and direction of influence amongst individual doctors, institutions, and associations to identify KOLs or partner opportunities

3. Word clouds

Word clouds (aka tag clouds) provide a visual representation of the most prominently used words within a source of text. The more a word is used, the larger the size of the word within the word cloud — making certain words or phrases more obvious. This can be a powerful tool when used to analyze large volumes of text or online conversation to reveal key messages and dialogue patterns.

Get familiar with the power of word clouds by creating your own at


“A growing trend in data visualization is to represent complex data through visual shorthand called infographics.”


Key applications include:

• Sentiment or tonality of social commentary by audience or topic can be used to drive targeting and messaging strategies

• Analysis of promotional content (websites, emails, ebooks) to expose messaging themes

4. Infographics

A growing trend in data visualization is to represent complex data through visual shorthand called infographics. Illustrating flow, highlighting key elements of a story, and integrating words and graphics, infographics reveal information for diverse audiences in a fun, easily digestible format.

Great examples can be found in the winners of the Health Data Visualization Contest

Key applications include:

• Patient education that simply illustrates a disease state and therapy information

• Corporate communication of strategy and goals or process flows

• HCP education on the benefits and management of therapies

5. Experiential design

Bring interactivity to your data by integrating the four previous styles with the levers that allow audiences to explore data for themselves through experiential design. Examples of this include lifestyle apps like MapMyRun, available for smartphones and tablets.

Key applications include:

• Therapy and lifestyle trackers for patients that provide simple interfaces for managing their data and visual summaries

• Rebate calculators that allow users to adjust values for specific conditions

Well, there you have it — five ways to drive the appeal of your data. Pick the style that best matches your data’s personality and connect with that special someone who appreciates what’s on the inside.



About the author:

Bryan Hill, Chief Technology Officer, Cadient Group

Bryan is the architect of the agency’s range of digital solutions and leader of Cadient’s Global Technologies organization, a passionate team of solution architects, developers, and quality engineers delivering innovative solutions in web, mobile and social. Bryan has nearly twenty years of leadership experience and expertise in multiple technical areas including software development, data management and IT consulting. In his nine years at Cadient Group, Bryan’s primary responsibilities have been focused on growing a global digital production operation, driving technical innovation, developing digital solution strategies and ensuring the quality delivery of Cadient’s interactive healthcare offerings.

Prior to joining Cadient Group at its founding in 2002, Bryan led the development of web and desktop based enterprise strategy management software at ActiveStrategy. Bryan’s background also includes time as a digital practice lead with IT consultancy IQGroup in Philadelphia where his teams utilized emerging web technologies to deliver custom solutions for clients such as American Express, Global Crossing and Republican National Convention 2000.

Bryan began his career in Philadelphia at Farm Journal, Inc. in 1993 where he led the development of many data-driven solutions as well as the publisher’s migration to the web.

What is the personality profile of your data?