People looking at things

Tips for evaluating data visualization tools

It’s the job of your organization’s business intelligence (BI) tool to distill vast amounts of data down into understandable, actionable insights including KPIs, metrics, and other critical points. From there, it’s up to your data visualization tool to transform these insights into a compelling visual presentation.

In recent years, the number of tools available have increased dramatically, and with so many options to choose from, selecting the right one might seem like a daunting challenge, but it’s really not. Being successful just means following a few basic guidelines.

First, determine your needs and goals

One of the fundamental truths of data visualization is that nice design and beautiful graphics alone aren’t what matters. Rather, it’s the clarity of the message they convey. If a simple pie chart or bar graph communicates more clearly than a beautiful infographic, it could be argued the boring image is more effective. But when both criteria are met—when striking visuals meet clear messaging—that’s when data visualization becomes invaluable. Keep this in mind as you evaluate different tools.

Start by outlining what you hope to achieve:

  • Begin with a clear goal of what you’re trying to convey and what your needs are. List the different data points you have to work with and prioritize them so you know which are the most important to get across.

  • Next, document what you want the data to communicate by summarizing it in as simple a sentence as possible.

  • Then let that phrase serve as a reference point you can continually refer to as you evaluate different data visualization software options.

Next, decide on the features you need

The best data visualization tools and software will generate a variety of different charts, graphs, and map types via a simple, intuitive dashboard interface. But it’s important to choose a tool that has the flexibility and features needed to address the ongoing needs of your organization.

While you’re probably starting your search based on one particular project or specific need, try to remember the big picture and consider how the solution you choose can continue to be valuable in the months and years ahead.

With that in mind, make sure you select a tool that lets you change visualizations on the fly. Verify it allows for BI and analytics flexibility and be certain it includes ERP capabilities. Also, most tools no longer require database expertise, but it’s a good idea to make sure that’s the case.

Finally, don’t forget about security and compliance. Because your data visualization tool will have access to all your company’s data, look for a solution that supports things like industry-standard authentication methods, site roles, and user permissions. Also verify that it complies with SOX, SOC, and ISAE standards.

Look for a tool that:

  • Has analytics flexibility.
  • Includes ERP capabilities.
  • Doesn’t require database expertise.
  • Has security features and enables compliance and governance.

Remember to consider where your data will come from

Every organization uses their visualization tools to query data from different places, so ensure the options you’re evaluating allow for a wide range of input sources. Those should include basic formats like SQL and NoSQL as well as third-party data sources. It’s also important to be able to access information from email marketing systems and customer relationship management (CRM) applications in addition to other business platforms your company uses.

Choosing a visualization tool for big data is also becoming more and more important. So if that’s something your organization needs, support for Hadoop, an open-source, big data framework that processes massive amounts of data on server clusters, is a must-have.

Think about how complex your visualization will be

While all visualization tools allow you to create data-filled images, the quality, complexity, and artistic value of the end product can vary greatly. Most use basic templates which, at the very least, will allow you to create simple graphics. These might be sufficient. But other solutions may use templates that function as a springboard to creating more complex, custom infographics, or interactive visualizations, which could have greater impact with your audience.

Keep these options in mind as you evaluate the different choices available. The more you consider the kinds of data visualizations you’ll be creating, the more satisfied you’ll be with the tool you choose.

Questions for evaluating visualization complexity:

  • Is a basic template sufficient?
  • Do you need a custom infographic or interactive image?
  • What will have the desired impact on your audience?

Collaboration is key

The ability to collaborate with different people on your team and across your organization is one of the powerful features of a data visualization tool.

So look for one that works with the suite of tools your teams are already using while providing cloud-based dashboards that update in real time and are accessible from any browser. Then you can be certain no matter where you—or others—are working, or what device you’re using, you’ll be able to collaborate via the same dashboard to achieve the end result you need.

Make sure your final product can be published the way you need it

Once you’ve finished creating your presentation, make sure the visualizations you’ve made can be published and integrated into the right kind of messaging channels.

For example, if you’re posting to a webpage, team website or app, be certain that the tool you choose allows you to export code snippets which can easily be copied and pasted into the site or integrated via open APIs. Or, if you’re publishing to an online news article or slide deck, you’ll want to make sure it supports popular, flat graphic file formats like JPG, SVG, and PDF. Similarly, it’s also important to look for a solution that allows your visuals to be embedded into apps, portals, and documents.

For users with temporary or situational disabilities, as well as permanent ones, the ability to publish in a format that takes them into consideration is important. So be sure to look for a data visualization tool that also allows you to address their needs.

To publish successfully, choose a tool that:

  • Supports exporting of code snippets for inclusion in websites.
  • Can create flat graphic file formats like JPG, SVG, and PDF.
  • Allows visuals to be embedded into apps, portals, and documents.
  • Provides accessibility for all users.

Start by evaluating a robust data visualization tool

Put your new-found evaluation skills to the test by learning about Microsoft Power BI. Make informed decisions quickly. Connect, model, and explore your data with stunning visual reports. Power BI enables you to do all that—and it easily integrates with other tools like Microsoft Excel.