What’s for you the biggest challenge of Data Visualization?

Alejandro Vidal Mata Data Experience Designer & Data Scientist BBVA


Intervista a Alejandro Vidal Mata, Data Experience Designer & Data Scientist di BBVA, Top Speaker al convegno DataViz Day, Milano 9 novembre 2017

How did you start to work with Data Visualization?

At the beginning of my career I was working developing human behaviour simulations. I was using data visualization as a tool to understand what’s happening inside those models. First, I didn’t make anything big. They’re only simple static visualizations using standard statistical software. Pretty traditional data visualization on those moments.

The more complex our studies became the bigger visualizations we needed. And at some point we got some important insights with some visualizations in an unexpected way.

Then I realized I could study data visualization as a psychological or cognitive phenomena instead of using it only as a tool. That idea as psychologist amazed me. I was wondering why you’d use only one way to communicate your brain with your computer.

Typically we use standard user interfaces with a bunch of numbers and tables. But our visual brain is pretty amazing and seems the most natural and powerful channel to make a computer and a brain cooperate.

I’ve been working with data visualization since then as a great way to create better integrations between humans and machines. Not only “pretty reports”. Maybe this sounds weird but it’s what’s happening in each application of data visualization. You’re designing a visual way to create a bridge with your user to understand better your data and also the other way back.

What will data visualization look like five years from now?

I think the future of this discipline is the natural integration into the practice of every business or product and stop thinking about it as a specialization, because… everyone will be a specialist on it. You’ll only need a specialist for more complex use cases but 99% of your needs should be fulfilled with your normal team.

Maybe this seems unlikely but think about data science: a few years ago anyone was thinking about a profile that mix engineering, statistics and business knowledge. Now is (or was a few years ago) the sexiest job in the world!

In these years we’re seeing how data science practice is smoothly integrating in everyday activity in every industry. That happens thanks to the awareness of that discipline and its industrialization: now we’ve cheaper and more standardized processes.

I think a similar future is going on for data visualization. It’ll become more and more “invisible” and integrated in what we’re doing every day. Simply, you’ll miss something if you don’t use it.

What is the most exciting / the funniest data visualization project you’ve worked on?

I really enjoy bending the rules of the basics of data visualization. It’s like a breath of fresh air to think about new ideas and have fun.

The last one could be our Odile hurricane visualization where we mixed different ideas of storytelling and data visualization that we’ve been thinking about for a few months. Some of them were a little rule-breaking and I remember how our team had some problems explaining why we want to do things in *that* way instead using a bar chart or our always beloved pie chart.

What’s for you the biggest challenge of Data Visualization?

I see 2 main challenges that we have to deal with.

The first one is try to don’t forget the fundamentals of this field. Data visualization is gaining traction in the industry. Therefore it attracts inevitably bad practices and rush to launch products. It’s easy to find bad applications of data visualization everywhere.

Those mistakes could be condensed in one: don’t pay attention to the fundamentals and the goal of this field which is communicate data in a visual way based on what we know about how humans consume visual information.

If you think data visualization is a fancy way to show numbers you’ll create meaningless products with a cooler design but without any of the advantages of using visualization.

This probably is the riskiest challenge but in the long term only companies that uses data visualization correctly will create impactful products that surpass their competitors.

The other challenge is integrate data visualization into companies.
Data Visualization is a super specific field with a lot of influences and intersections with others disciplines: statistics, design, human perception and so on. For that reason it’s rare and difficult for a company to create and hire specialized profiles in their teams. Frequently you see data visualization teams or profiles converted into user experience or design teams because companies doesn’t need that level of specialization or fails integrating this knowledge into their business and products.

Also sometimes design teams lead data visualization developments without any related knowledge. This results typically in cool but bad designed ideas (regarding data visualization criterias).
The challenge here is finding an equilibrium inside each company to develop data visualization units and encourage team to transform your company working along other teams.