Brad Tober, Associate Director of UX / Product Design, Publicis Spine
Please note that this article does not necessarily represent the views of the author’s employer.
The best-executed product research, design or development processes cannot always anticipate every use case that might need to be addressed, let alone every unintended application that users may find for a given iteration of a product. There are a variety of ways product teams can (and do) acknowledge this reality; some adopt an accelerated product cycle in order to refine a product’s user experience more responsively, while others may build a product with an “accommodating” user experience, one that implements a wide range of potential use cases, albeit in a more generalized sense. Given that the choice between these two options is based on—at least, in part—availability of resources, it’s often true that a balanced approach is not only the most effective in streamlining product implementation, but also in unlocking the potential of the product to provide an empowering user experience.
One consequence of the “accommodating” approach, at least in the context of data-oriented products, is the prevalence of data visualization dashboards. Data visualizations are valuable, particularly when one wishes to substantiate or expand upon a given claim/interpretation made based on data, and are well-suited for inclusion within presentations to clients and other product stakeholders. This suitability, however, is not necessarily scalable—the appropriateness of visualization in a presentation, for example, does not imply the same appropriateness for visualizations situated within a product interface. While the audiences for both the presentation and the product in this situation may be identical, the former scenario provides the opportunity for additional context to be provided in real time and the latter does not.
Unless a user is already aware of the role played by the visualized data within their workflow, they are likely to find themselves disoriented
Typical dashboard-oriented approaches offer a great deal of flexibility in the way that they emphasize access to (potentially a wide range of) data within a product interface, but they do so at the expense of de-emphasizing the way in which the data (and its visual interpretation) might best be used as part of a user’s intended workflow. Unless a user is already aware of the role played by the visualized data within their workflow, they are likely to find themselves disoriented: a fundamental user experience failure.
One possible solution to this problem leverages what we already know—about both this situation in particular and design more broadly. We already know that the presentation environment allows for contextualization/explanation of the intent and value of visualization (by incorporating the visualization into a larger narrative about the data). In addition, basic design principles can serve as tools for effective narrative communication. Thus, the user experience of engaging with the constituent visualizations of a more comprehensive dashboard should be characterized by a narrative thread supported by the visualizations themselves. While supplemental content presented alongside the visualizations can be useful, leveraging design principles like hierarchy, proximity, and contrast provides a framework for the selective emphasis, grouping, and sequencing of the visualizations—ultimately clarifying the intent behind the visualization of data and facilitating user ease of access/engagement.
Data-oriented product user experiences require attention paid not only to the data visualizations themselves, but also to the larger context of those visualizations—helping orient users to the product and promoting communication of the meaning behind the data. Leveraging design to structure this context is clearly in the best interest of the user, but the benefits of a design-informed process extend far beyond the user and hold the potential to realize improvements across the product cycle.