A person working before a bank of computer monitors

What is data visualization?

A beginner’s guide

Every day your business generates more data on sales revenue, marketing performance, customer interactions, inventory levels, production metrics, staffing levels, costs, and other KPIs. But with so much data to sift through, it can be difficult for people to see the story it tells.

Data visualization helps you turn all that granular data into easily understood, visually compelling—and useful—business information. By tapping into external data sources, today’s data visualization tools don’t simply let you see your KPIs more clearly, they unify data and apply AI-driven analytics to reveal relationships between your KPIs, the market, and the world.

The benefits of data visualization

Hidden within your data lie important insights that can help drive business forward. But the challenge is that you can’t always connect the dots by looking at raw numbers alone. When you look at your data presented in a visual format, patterns, connections, and other “a-ha” insights emerge that would otherwise remain out of sight.

Data visualization brings data to life, making you the master storyteller of the insights hidden within your numbers. Through live data dashboards, interactive reports, charts, graphs, and other visual representations, data visualization helps users develop powerful business insight quickly and effectively.

How to make the most of data visualization

Being able to see the story within the numbers makes data visualization a powerful tool for sharing and communicating information. Data visualization can be used for demonstrating performance, communicating trends, understanding the impact of new strategies, showing relationships, and beyond. These representations can be powerful tools for communication and collaboration, bringing greater value to reports, journalism, apps, or any context where sharing information is required.

Explore these interactive data visualization examples

Drive better decision making with data visualization

While stunning, rich visuals can be great tools for communicating ideas, the end benefit of data visualization is its ability to drive better decision making. Here are a few ways data visualization helps with strategic decision making:

  • See the big picture. There’s a clear picture of performance buried within the transaction, interaction, process, and behavioral data stored in your systems. Data visualization allows you to recognize the broader context and higher-level scenario within it. As a result, you’ll notice trends and spot patterns you wouldn't be able to see if you were looking at numbers on their own.
  • Identify the significance. Bringing visual clarity to the story told within your data helps you identify insights that lead to better decision making, planning, strategies, and actions. How is your business performing, what needs to be modified, and where should you focus your resources? The ability to understand the significance of your data drives more effective operations and decisions.
  • Make informed decisions. With concrete numbers and tangible insights, you can be confident your decisions are backed by data. Having clear insight into performance metrics empowers you with the knowledge and arms you with the tools to make the right decisions at the right time.
  • Track trends over time. Once you've established a baseline, trends will begin to emerge. Track progress, spot trends, and begin using your insights to drive informed, strategic decisions. As you build your trends, shifts in patterns indicate if things drift off track, allowing you to immediately address any sign of lowered performance.

Evaluating data visualization tools

Today’s data visualization tools run the gamut from free versions you can access with a browser to feature-rich platforms that integrate with a wide variety of mainstream business applications.

But with so many data visualization tools, how do you choose the right solution for your specific needs? In the end, you want a tool that gives you the insights you need to help you focus on what matters most.

Here are some key questions you’ll want to keep in mind as you look for a data visualization solution with the right balance of power, flexibility, and ease-of-use for your needs:

What are your goals and needs?

Take a moment to list out what types of data you have and what kinds of information and insights you want to gather.

What features do you require?

Top data visualization solutions include features like business intelligence, analytics, enterprise reporting capabilities, giving you flexibility to meet your needs both today and tomorrow.

Where will your data come from?

Consider how you’ll connect or import your data and determine if the tool offers a seamless fit with your systems.

Where will you need to see your data?

Find a tool that allows you to take your data and dashboards with you on any device, for quick insight and collaboration anywhere you are.

Where would you like to publish your visualization?

Think about where your final presentation will be published. On a website, in a blog post, or in an online news article? Find a tool that allows flexibility to post and share your data visualization wherever your story should be told—one that lets you create data stories with amazing interactive visualizations and easily publish them to your blog or website.

Learn more about the benefits of data visualization

Discover all the ways data visualization can help your business by exploring Microsoft Power BI—and get started free.