Internal Design: Success Requires Form and Function

A landscape oriented, digital interface with several filters that maps the Free or Reduced Lunch status of public schools found in Kansas and Missouri.
Our first public release of EdWise in summer of 2015 included this mapping functionality. Our goal was to allow the public to explore the geographic spread of various public education measures.

 “I know you have never met me, but with thirty minutes, I promise I can show you the best use of Tableau you have seen all year.” I knew how I sounded, but the situation felt desperate. “It’s June,” a business leader at Tableau said both as a statement of fact and challenge. That morning, in 2015, we uncovered a data storage limit for our as-of-yet unpublished, public dashboard on regional education. Without resolution, EdWise might fail to keep its soft release date. I felt that we needed help, which spurred several cold calls. Due to an incredible amount of kindness from my local data community, I had a chance to communicate the problem to the company we used to build this dashboard and could not waste it. “I stand by what I said, sir. Can you give me the thirty minutes?”

In my 10+ years as an information designer, there have been two large data visualization projects that I led. These projects were large, encompassing everything from design to program management. EdWise at the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, which I led from 2012 until 2017. EdWise gathered all public information on education from Kansas and Missouri, then placed it in a more accessible format so that individuals and groups could make decisions on education more easily. We used dashboards as a search and reporting interface. The Career Explorer Tools at The DeBruce Foundation, which I lead starting in 2022 to the present day. The Career Explorer Tools are a series of web tools that combine proprietary analysis on universal, work activity themes and occupations from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. These tools allow users to explore future occupations based on work activities they enjoy doing and ones they do best. My goal with Career Explorer Tools was to refresh the design, add mobile, and integrate new data, whereas EdWise was a completely new tool.

My journey with EdWise and the Career Explorer Tools taught me about generating change using innovative data visualization within an organization. Both projects further developed data visualization practices in organizations that did not yet have these practices fully integrated. Less than full integration of data visualization is common in my experience. This field has grown greatly, but it is still not the norm for many places. This is the main point of my stories in this article. Due to the nature of organizations, success in data visualization development centers more on program management and relationships than design choices and visual execution. While there is research on programmatic adoption with organizations this article centers on three life lessons, the ones I learned the hard way. Learning what I know can be helpful to your work if you wish to grow data visualization inside your organization.

landscape oriented, digital interface driven by a word cloud of Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational titles that are searchable by the collection of ten, large icons found in a straight line across the top of the interface.
Our refresh of this design centered on exposing students to more titles as the 800+ occupational titles found in the BLS dataset can feel challenging for anyone. We use our colorful branded icons to tempt users into interacting whether that is a roll over or a click.

Life lesson #1: build literacy first

Adoption within an organization requires several departments to work together. This means there will be at least an equal number of presentations to those departments on your innovative designs. Data visualization literacy is not yet universal. It is in your best interest to dedicate time early on and separately to that purpose. I learned this the hard way.

When EdWise made the rounds, questions focused on understanding the underlying concepts instead of diving into the designs. For example, there were more than a few questions about research exploring data visualization’s efficacy as a tool in wide-spread information sharing versus written reports. A lack of focus on the innovation itself did slow development, which makes sense. These leaders had not seen interactive data visualizations as a widespread tool, let alone the innovation of using these visualizations as an interface for public data. It would be near impossible, and a tad unfair, to introduce concepts of data visualization while explaining innovative designs. To add to the challenge, in 2012 there were fewer resources for corporate education on data visualization literacy than there are in 2023 and I was less experienced enough to be unaware of the ones that were out there at the time.

The answer is clear. When introducing a data visualization innovation within an organization, spend time building literacy together in separate meetings before sharing those innovations. The weeks to months invested early on will yield understanding and connection. These outcomes were things I was able to experience when I joined The DeBruce Foundation by employing this strategy successfully.

During my first few months on the job, I held several sessions about what roles exist in data, what is data visualization, what are industry best practices, and what were our design standards. There were also internal documents I created and several individual meetings to support this literacy effort. The works of Stephanie Evergreen, Scott Berinato, and Cole Nussbaumer Knaflic were instrumental in that process. Understanding grew. When I introduced the refresh to our Career Exploration Tools, we spent most of the time where it needed to be—on the innovation. A few months later I even saw diversification in the kinds of people submitting design requests for reports.

A design outline for a data visualization drafted on glass with dry erase marker and colored paper taped behind it to make the marker easier to see.
The changing nature of public data can increase design iteration as new frameworks come to mind. This is why I found it easier to fill out even windows with these frameworks like I did in fall of 2014.

Life lesson #2: focus the project through alignment

Project reporting was a strength of the Career Explorer Tools. From approval until soft release regular meetings were held with leadership. The first three slides in those meetings never changed their focus: opportunity, goals, and process overview. From this foundation we dove into that meeting’s individual purpose. These purposes ranged widely from design themes to focus groups. At the beginning of our project a fair amount of time was spent retelling the origin stories that got us to invest in the project to begin with, but by the end of the project we had internalized those stories, and they became part of the narrative in sharing the designs.

Innovation in data visualization requires both dedication and expertise. You need to understand information, design, and how to use one to make the other. While leadership may be supportive of our creative advances, they likely do not have the time to recall the project’s running narrative given the nature of this work. Your role in the project is to aid leadership in that understanding. Use framework slides to kick off recurring meetings and to guide your conversations. You may find this documentation is helpful in the mental management of several creation activities.

EdWise was my first large project. We had designs, evaluations, and public events. Innovation of data visualization can generate diverse and iterative work, particularly if that innovation is public facing. An unplanned iteration, say from an insightful comment at a public event, could slow down development. Even with support, which I received, it is easy to fall behind a project due to complications. In real terms falling behind looks like moving Tuesday’s tasks to Wednesday, because of Monday. This of course happens naturally in any project, but it can happen more in innovation due to the unknowable nature of trying something new.

The lesson is not that a framing device used in meetings lowers the number of unplanned iterations. Nothing can really do that. The lesson is that project management practices, like a framing device, are key to the success of a data visualization innovation. This is because these practices give you the best possible chance to stay aware and focused. They also help teammates remember where you have been, while you jointly work on where you are going.

A portrait oriented, mobile, digital interface that has two components that repeat: a filter of occupations, a recap of the selected occupation, and five colorful icons. These two components are separated by a black line.
One component we were determined to include with the refresh was a mobile interface. Here we see the design being driven by two, colorful icon arrays that stay true branding and draw the eye.

Life lesson #3: understand internal and external audience

To succeed inside an organization every design innovation needs a clear purpose, an arguable reason for being that stakeholders can understand easily, and solutions that users can adopt. Few of us can claim the kind of self-sufficiency that avoids this requirement. Meaning the data visualization that you are currently building at work must be first supported and then consumed by others in an organizational setting. In my experience, support can reflect strategic alignment and consumption can reflect activity alignment. Leaders are much more likely to consider an innovation if it extends from the organization’s existing goals and identity. Teammates are much more likely to use an innovation if it addresses activities they undertake every day. Without strategic alignment, innovation may not feel like a fit and the project rightly shuts down. Without activity alignment, innovation may be well known and yet still struggle to be used.

At The DeBruce Foundation this looked like lots of meetings before design. First there were the 30-minute, mini meetings with other teammates to understand audience, perception, usage, and opportunity around the items being considered for refresh. Then came longer meetings with the leadership to see if and how this refresh aligned with our strategic plan. Eventually we would even extend this process to include our partners and various end users. If this sounds like a lot of leg work before using your pen, that’s because it is. There is no work around. Discovery through discussion is the only way I know how to build a solution that aligns with the strategic goals and the daily uses. The result was a project that was supported by all levels of the organization and its daily uses were immediate.

EdWise held strategic alignment but not clear consumption alignment. The idea of this project made sense given the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation’s education and entrepreneurial focused internal goals as well as external strategic plans at the time. Leaders were supportive of it with some even being very supportive. In fact, each of my direct managers used their unique skills to make EdWise better and the byproduct of that support was that this data visualization project got in front of high-ranking public figures within a handful of years. The whole thing is something I will never forget. Yet, strategic support did not turn into public usage. I can remember a conversation with a friend looking at the tool and saying, “so, what do I do with it?” My response was to show all sorts of tips and tricks. They appreciated the knowledge and were impressed by the functionality, but it seemed less than likely they would use it again.

Our post launch numbers for the dashboard were okay, and held steady, but did not grow in a way that indicated widespread usage. There are many reasons why this might happen in a data visualization project, but looking back I think more pre-design study of users would have helped increase our odds. Understanding the end user before creating a data visualization innovation is far more likely to help a design rather than hinder it.

What happened

The phone call with Tableau immediately led to a video call. Tableau loved our idea of a dashboard as a navigation tool for a regional education data system that is powered by public data. In fact, Tableau gave us the space our data needed, we met our soft launch date, and EdWise would win Viz of the Day in the summer of 2015. Ultimately, the tools would be gracefully retired a handful of years later. Although, the resulting image from Viz of the Day was my desktop background for a while longer than that.

It is early in the life of our Career Explorer Tools, but we are thrilled with the usage. Two of the four tools have over 10,000 views in less than a year and the feedback from these tools continues to be overwhelmingly positive. The refreshed design is a part of our larger initiative of creating resources that expand economic pathways for everyone. We are excited to continue advancing in the mobile space as well as diversifying how we and with whom we communicate data.

These life lessons are not all inclusive. There are many other things that I learned about designing innovative data visualization inside an organization. Maybe that is the larger point. The design inside an organization is a continuous, iterative process of development personally and of product. The key is to let that process feed you and celebrate the people on the journey with you. Whether it’s my new home at The DeBruce Foundation or my old one at the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, there are several people who are close to me and who helped me along the way. That’s the real benefit of internal design. Once you work within a structure you can genuinely speak to the team’s impact versus the efforts of one person.

Christopher Laubenthal headshot
Christopher Laubenthal

Christopher Laubenthal focuses on better data use with visualizations in an organizational setting. He has experience in both for-profit and not-for-profit sectors where he increases literacy, grows culture, and builds data visualizations. Christopher is the Data Design Manager at The DeBruce Foundation, a national foundation whose mission is to expand pathways to economic growth and opportunity. Current projects include his public viz and The DeBruce Foundation’s Career Explorer Tools.