Form and Function: Let Your Audience’s Needs Drive Your Data Visualization Choices

  • Static and explanatory: Graphs that are not active or moving are typically used to illustrate a point or to reinforce an argument made in the text or presentation, such as this bar chart about poverty and food stamps from a recent blog post by my Urban colleagues. Most people probably conjure up a picture of the standard line, bar, or area chart here, but it is worth exploring the wide array of other graph types that are available to you to visualize your data (some resources can be found here and here).
  • Static and exploratory: These types of visualizations lead readers to discover their own stories as they examine the static representation of data. The infographic below from designer Kristina Szucs, for example, does a great job of encouraging us to explore the data on our own.
Source: Image via Kristina Szucs
  • Interactive and explanatory: Perhaps the easiest explanatory-interactive graph type to consider is a static graph that has an interactive hover or rollover layered on top. Ben Chartoff and I used this approach in a series of graphs about the Disability Insurance program a couple of years ago. Interactivity can also be used to enable the reader to explain a process or tell a story. For example, Urban’s Prison Population Forecaster allows the user to examine the estimated effects of policy changes on the US prison population by clicking and scrolling through the page.
  • Interactive and exploratory: These visualizations graphically present a complete data set and ask users to find interesting patterns or stories. Sometimes it’s just giving people the data to play with or visualize on their own; for example, Urban’s Build Your Own Pension Plan calculator that lets you design retirement plans for state and local government employees, or our Social Security Data Tool, in which we remade the Social Security Administration’s Statistical Supplement to make it more visual and easier to use.

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Data@Urban

Data@Urban

Data@Urban is a place to explore the code, data, products, and processes that bring Urban Institute research to life.