We Cannot Give Up on the Data Viz Renegades!

An image of two dashboards. One is partly covered by a sad face emoji, the other partly covered by a happy face emoji.

Author’s note: All names and project details in the story have been changed or censored.

You’ve probably encountered them before. They can whip up a bunch of tables and be confident that everyone will understand their analytics. 

“The data is all here, simple and obvious. Look, there are twenty filters right here! What do you mean, it’s not clear? Why do we need these columns and circles… You just don’t understand the content!”

In my experience working with business clients, these folks are usually finance professionals, representatives of exact sciences, engineers – they know their field of expertise well. But when it comes to conveying their ideas and insights to other departments or company leadership, their hands turn into paws. Data communication is not always their strong suit, yet many are convinced that they are doing just fine.

They are know-it-all neophytes.
They are overconfident outcasts.
They are stubborn luddites.

For purposes of this article, let’s call them data viz renegades. Throughout my career working alongside these renegades, I’ve noticed that they struggle to create clear and visually appealing reports so that the viewer doesn’t bleed from their eyes. And yet they often resist suggestions for improvement; they are either convinced that their work makes sense, or they have become complacent with their work over the years, excusing themselves because data visualization doesn’t interest them or isn’t—and will never be!—their strong suit.

A screenshot of a dashboard that has four different visualizations, two tables and a long scroll bar of filter options.
A scary looking dashboard.

So, for many years, they avoided learning and resisted improving. But now, the world has changed so much that more and more people are forced to work with data and then visualize the results of that work. In the past, only a few professions were learning this skill, but now everyone from bankers to factory workers are forced to deal with it.

My mission is to guide them toward the brighter side!

Is it possible to communicate with data viz renegades?… It’s as if they’ve closed themselves off and now deny the very possibility that something will work for them. So it’s easy to believe there’s no point in trying anymore… 

Should we give up?

Turning the Beast into the Beauty

No, giving up is not necessary at all! Here’s the approach I found for these renegades, and I recommend it to everyone dealing with such challenging learners:

The key message should be as follows:

“I don’t want to turn you into designers, but I want to teach you how to brief a designer! Because if you tell someone (who is far from your field of expertise) to do something with your raw data, the designer will likely create beautiful looking tables and charts that do not show the most important information. The designs may be something completely unpredictable, or only according to the designer’s understanding. So it’s important to take responsibility for this product and learn how to set the task correctly and get an acceptable result later.”

Surprisingly, they understood this approach because they are usually experienced individuals, often in high positions, who have dealt with task assignment and project acceptance during their careers. The initial fears of having to become a data viz expert are alleviated!

Now we can dive into the theory and basic concepts of data visualization! Just be prepared; progress will be slow. It’s a challenging path, and any teacher or trainer may feel drained and useless with such learners. Take comfort in knowing that this hard-earned skill they acquire will be retained and multiplied, bringing them much benefit. After all, it’s the development of our weaknesses that strengthens us — not polishing what we already know how to do.

The Story of Frank, a Wild, Wild Data Viz Renegade

Let me tell you more through the example of my student, Frank, who is 50 years old! He is lively, full of ideas, confident, a master in his field, and not afraid of challenges!

“I don’t need your dashboards! I’ve got everything under control!” he told me. Yet his initial attempts at dashboards are enough to scare any data viz specialist and evoke disgust towards dashboards in any manager!…

A badly designed dashboard with poorly chosen colors, unintelligible charts and random design and formatting, among other problems.
Frank’s very scary dashboard.

But I gathered enough patience to turn this data-viz monster into a beauty! I’ll explain in detail how I did it. And I recommend these steps to anyone dealing with difficult learners:

  • First, I asked him to show what he was doing, encouraging him to explain, as it helps material better sink in.
  • I tried to be compassionate and empathetic because Frank is as far from data viz as possible; it’s like something completely incomprehensible for him.
  • I constantly praised him, not sparing any compliments! Every tiny step, as small as building a simple chart, was valuable! He had a long string of failures behind him, and even the slightest difficulty could shake his self-confidence.
  • I lowered the bar of my expectations. A lot. I didn’t expect the successes I usually anticipate from an average student. I settled for less. It’s like a child taking their first steps; don’t expect them to salsa dance for you in a week.
  • I stocked up on patience – a massive bag of patience! – I was prepared to repeat the same thing many times, tried not to get annoyed, aimed to be more tolerant and kind.

The results would come, but it would take several times longer than with an ordinary student. I tried to prepare for that and adjust my mindset accordingly. After all, I understand that if someone can grasp data viz in two days of an intensive course, then a monthly marathon may not yield the same results.

And all the efforts will pay off.

And They Lived Happily Ever After

After months of regular sessions, buckets of my tears, and his sweat, Frank chuckled and confidently opened his latest dashboard version. I could barely contain a shout of joy.

His project might not have been perfect, but it was a decent dashboard, user-friendly, and capable of delivering value.

A much improved dashboard with a clear hierarchy, nicely formatted and colored visuals, and a pleasing layout.
A much improved dashboard.

And he did it himself – is there a greater reason for a teacher’s pride than the success of a student?

I’m sure a resourceful guy like Frank will find ways to use dashboards in his department and squeeze the maximum benefit from his new skills – he’s incredibly persistent!

And I’m happy that another person has mastered data visualization and will be able to work more efficiently with it. 

Hooray, another little star in the data-viz galaxy!

Alex Kolokolov head shot
Alex Kolokolov

Alex Kolokolov has been working in the business intelligence industry for the last 14 years. His passion is dashboard design and development. He is a founder of Data2Speak Inc., an agency that provides BI services and trainings. He is author of books Dashboards for Executives (2019) and Make your Data Speak (2023). He is organizer of the international dataviz conference and award “Make Your Data Speak“.