Data Visualisation

Using Visualization to Manage – Part of the MEME Approach

Ray Poynter
July 28, 2021
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To maximize the benefit of visualization, you need to focus on the task you are aiming to achieve. The visualization approaches for monitoring are different to those for exploring, and different again from managing and explaining – as I outlined in my post about MEME (Monitor, Explore, Manage, and Explain). In this post, I will look at using visualization for Managing outcomes, showing how you can use visualization approaches to help ensure the right steps and processes are achieved.

Examples of how Visualizations Manage

Before looking at how Manage applies to information in the world of insights, it is useful to consider a few examples of how Manage is aided by visualization in other fields.  

Assembly instructions, for example IKEA furniture

The key to these assembly instructions is to simplify the process as much as possible, whilst providing the key information. The diagram illustrates how the information is minimised, and how the key points are amplified (the specific fixing screw, how it is screwed, and the need to rotate the section before the next step). The instructions provide a step-by-step process to take the user from a collection of parts to a completed project. Note, there may be many possible sequences for assembling the piece of furniture, but the instructions seek to make it simpler by only offering one option.

Two weaknesses with these paper-based visualizations are a) people often get pieces the wrong way round (upside down or back to front), and b) the instructions can't be reconfigured to provide help when things go wrong. The first of these problems is often ameliorated by labelling the components; for example, A, B, Top, Bottom etc.

Decision flow charts

A decision flow chart, like the one from the City of Bradford about School Emergencies (shown to the right), tries to ensure that people make the right choices in unfamiliar and stressful situations. The chart tells the person responding how to start (in this case using the METHANE framework). The chart then asks if they need to activate the Emergency plan ie. it is conditional and provides different routes. If an Emergency Plan activation is necessary, the chart then branches on whether it is in office hours or not. The chart keeps information to a minimum, but ensures that it contains the key items – such as the telephone numbers that need to be called.

Car Satnavs

A car satnav device seeks to manage your journey, often blending visualisation with voice instructions. As in the earlier examples, the first thing to note is the degree of simplification. Things that are not needed for the communication of the instructions tend not to be included. The focus of the visualisation is what is happening now (most systems do not show you the whole journey during the instruction phase, nor do they give you details of where you have been). When you approach a major junction, many satnavs will use augmented reality to show you an image (often a digitized video) of the junction, so you can more easily tell which lane you should be in.

One benefit of a satnav, in comparison to static visualisations, is that it will re-configure itself when necessary (for example if you make a wrong turn). Note, a satnav will often calculate several possible routes, but once a user selects a specific route, it reports just that route, making life simpler by providing fewer choices.

Key features of Visualisation for Managing an action or process

The examples shown above, and others, highlight three key features of visualisation being used to manage an action or process:

  1. Simplify – show the message not the detail.
  1. Unambiguous – there may be several alternatives, but only show one of them.
  1. Adaptive – take the users’ needs and actions into account

Lessons for Visualizing and Insights

Good research and actionable insights result in recommendations. Traditionally, recommendations are presented as prose and tables. However, if we apply the thinking outlined above, we can consider using visualising to turn the recommendations into managed actions. One approach would be to create a flow chart or a cartoon, showing what could/should be done.

Another use of Manage visualisation is to aid the users of information to find what they need. At the most basic level, systems can employ visual cues, using the assembly construction instructions model. For example, including on-screen prompts graphically displayed. At the next level, we can build on the flowchart approach, highlighting the key steps and the places where different choices lead to different outcomes. The final destination for this process will be more like the car satnav, employing AI, databases and visualisation, to help users take the shortest possible route to the right destination.

Visualisation for managing processes can also be used internally, to help ensure projects are designed well, that research instruments are properly tested, and that the analysis and story finding processes are conducted efficiently.

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