Embracing Mobile to Make Your Data Visualizations More Equitable

Simple cartoon outlines of people in a complex cave system. They use their smartphones as a light source to search the cave features and make sense of their surroundings.

Most of us have issues we care deeply about, whether they are large or small, individual or societal. When you think about the issues that are most important to you, when did you first start caring about them? What triggered that first ‘aha!’ moment?

My first ‘aha!’ moments about issues like climate change, feminism, and COVID all came from simple data visualizations. The data underlying them wasn’t simple, but the presentation made the messages clear. I couldn’t not care anymore. Looking back, I’m deeply grateful to those practitioners, and I realize impact was possible because of many things I take for granted, including my education in data literacy and my access to different technologies. Those visualizations wouldn’t have been as impactful if I’d encountered them on a phone, which is how most of the world now accesses information.

People use mobile more than desktop

For several years now, mobile use has surpassed laptop and desktop use, worldwide. Large screens are still necessary in many professional settings, but when people are out and about, living their lives, they tend to turn to the devices that fit in their pockets. People with low incomes, especially, rely on mobile devices for internet access, a trend that’s only been increasing over time.

Around the world, most individuals don’t have a personal computer. Entire nations have leapfrogged desktop use, basing their data infrastructures on smartphones. This can have several benefits, like increasing accessibility for more citizens, but many of those who process and create information for the internet haven’t yet adapted.

Insightful data can benefit those who rely on mobile

Pew Research has tracked shifts in device and internet use over the past decade. In their 2021 survey they found that out of all low-income respondents, 27 percent can only access the internet through a phone. Just over half have a home broadband connection.

On the other side of the picture, for high-income respondents, nearly all have a broadband connection at home. They also tend to have access to a wide variety of devices, including smartphones, laptops, tablets, or desktops.

When it comes to pivotal life moments, it’s surprising how much the internet plays a role. Whether it’s communicating with doctors, managing bank transactions, or applying for government services, being able to navigate living depends on being able to interact with the digital systems around you.

Additionally, news about current events primarily comes through the internet. Data visualization plays a major role in much of this, yet many times we find ourselves squinting and tapping with frustration, and, if we have a larger device nearby, switching to it. Not because what we’re trying to do would be impossible on a smartphone, but because it hasn’t been designed to work well on one. 

Typically, immersive dataviz on mobile is unsatisfying

When someone goes to a website on their phone, they tend to spend less time on it than if they had accessed it through a desktop. This could just be the nature of smartphones, after all, they do encourage multitasking and are often used while on-the-go, but it’s also true that many sites meant to inform and provide services are frustrating to experience on a smaller screen.

There’s a routine when I take my toddler, who has several medical conditions, to a doctor. First, they take his weight. Then, they add the new data point to an existing plot. Many times, there are large gaps in the data because, for one reason or another, they can’t pull in past measurements taken at other doctors’ offices. For a growing baby and toddler, all of these weight measurements, the points tracing a trend, are crucial to understanding if all bodily systems are working together to further development. I volunteer my phone, log into my child’s other medical records, and hold up, next to their screen, a very pixelated and zoomed-in graph of the missing data points. Finally, we sit there tilting our heads back-and-forth, trying to overlay the points in our minds. As you can see in the image below, it’s nearly impossible to get a meaningful sense of the data from this format. There are multiple points of failure here, but an easy win would simply be for this graph to be scalable, with points and axes that adjust to the zoom-level. This example is not to highlight experiences in medical settings in particular, but to illustrate one way out of many that mobile data visualizations could be improved to make life easier for someone experiencing, or providing care for, any number of challenges that a person might face.

Two screenshots comparing medical and health data accessed on a phone. The screenshot on the left shows fuzzy data points without axes labels, making it difficult to interpret. The screenshot on the right shows heart rate data from a health app. The data points are clear and labeled, with menu options to scale the data according to day, week, month, year, etc., as well as a tooltip that gives more information about each data point.
The weight data on the left doesn’t support zooming in, leaving pixelated data points without axes labels. This leaves much room for interpretation, and can negatively affect treatment decisions. The heart rate data on the right provides delightful ways to explore in depth, with tooltips and clearly-labeled options.

Contrast that with the data experience of Apple’s health app. It seamlessly integrates from your watch to your phone, where you can explore clear, and scalable, information and trends over time. It doesn’t occur to you to try to switch over to a laptop to look at this information, because all of what you want to know, and a lot of what you don’t, is already there for you to be proud (or horrified) of. Immersive, delightful, helpful dataviz on mobile is possible!

There’s an assumption that because you aren’t able to zoom out to a large “overview” image of a data visualization on a phone, it can’t be as successful. Because of that, nuanced and deep visualizations also aren’t feasible. It’s time to challenge those assumptions.

Smartphones enable many possibilities in dataviz that aren’t even possible on a PC. Here are just a few examples and ideas:

  • Traveling navigation: GPS can sense where a phone is, updating a visualization in real-time based on location. Runners and cyclists discovered that they can even make art with their location data.
  • Tilt-sensing: developers can access data from accelerometers and gyroscopes to create new types of interactions. For example, scanning from left to right could sweep across a time-series line graph. Tilting forwards or backwards could zoom in or out with ease.
  • Multi-touch: can be obnoxious, or awesome. Multiple touch-points makes brushing through and comparing specific data points easy.
  • Augmented reality: Do you want to know how many atoms are in a stadium full of rubber ducks compared to a stadium full of bubbles? Visualize it with an overlay on your surroundings!

Most of these smartphone features are less-explored realms, ripe with possibilities. Small screens can also give someone the ability to focus on information one-bite-at-a-time, something that often feels hard to do in today’s world. Take a moment to think of some of the most glorious data visualizations you’ve ever beheld. What made your heart race as you looked at them? Assuming they weren’t designed for mobile, can you imagine them in a way that they would be best experienced on a small screen? 

As people around the world use handheld devices more and more, their ‘aha!’ moments are at risk of being replaced by misinformation. This is an especially perilous situation for people who can’t access the internet other than through smartphones. As a data visualization creator, how do you know if your work is benefiting others and if you’re reaching your target audience? Although it’s not always possible to fully measure things like ‘benefit,’ there are things you can do to increase the chances. We can help make high-quality information more accessible to everyone if we envision how data visualizations can be compelling experiences on smaller devices. Delightful, immersive mobile visualizations are possible. They might have to look, or be experienced, in alternative ways, but it’s exciting to think of the freedom we might find in small screens.

Brianna Wilson creates 2D and 3D data visualizations that shed light on society and the natural world. Before data visualization, she was a designer of children’s toys, a Product Design Engineer on Apple’s iPad team, and a graduate of Stanford’s Product Design Engineering program. She’s based out of Portland, Oregon.