This is the second in a series of data visualization tips I learned before high school. If you would like to receive future updates, subscribe for free.
Even as a kid, I could type fast. I mean really fast. In fourth grade, I remember the entire class literally huddling around my computer to watch me play a typing game. In the game, if you could type enough words in a minute, an elephant would climb a ladder, then dive into a swimming pool. This was obviously the coolest thing many of us had seen at the time, and being the only person in the class capable of creating that kind of magic, my fame had peaked.
In fourth grade, I was pushing 70 words per minute. Since babies now come with iPhones, I’m not sure if that’s impressive any more. But this was circa 1992, when in my school district, each classroom had exactly two computers. While it was tempting to rest on my grand achievement of making a digital elephant dive into a swimming pool, I kept practicing and getting even faster.
On the first day of a mandatory introduction to typing class in seventh grade, the teacher gave us all an exercise to gauge our skill levels. During the exercise, we watched a monitor and could try to type the words on one of three lines, all with varying speeds. With humility, I chose to type the second fastest of the three lines, but did not make a single mistake. The teacher asked to talk to me after the first class, and while I thought I was in trouble, she was instead informing me that I would be doing my own exercises the rest of the school year. I was already typing over 100 words per minute.
Being treated differently than the whole class all year because of my typing ability, there was no question for anyone in the class who would win the typing contest at the end of the year.
That’s when I learned one of my best data visualization tips.
During the contest, the teacher gave us five minutes to type as many words as possible from a book. We would then proofread the result and count the number of words we had typed. This was a softball for me, and I was ready to go steroid-era Barry Bonds and set an all-time Indian Woods Middle School record.
I remember what happened next very vividly. After the five minutes, I had filled nearly an entire page with single spaced lines of copy. I haven’t mentioned that this was on a typewriter. It was a truly inspired effort of about 140 words per minute. It’s been a while since I’ve timed myself, but I’m not even sure I could do that any more as an adult.
The next step was to proofread the result for typing errors to score our accuracy. While I had many more lines to proofread than the rest of the class, this thing was almost impeccable; no doubt the best work I had ever done. But something was bugging me about the very last line. It just didn’t line up with the rest of the block of text. I stared at it and stared at it, and just couldn’t find why it wasn’t lining up. Being that the rest of the page was perfect, I chalked up the misalignment to the typewriter itself. After all, this typewriter had never had to handle this type of workload in a mere five minutes. I turned in my paper.
For the rest of the period, the teacher graded the papers so she could report the winner at the end of the hour. Then she was ready for the big announcement…
“Who do you think won the contest?”, she asked the class smugly. Everyone turned to look back at me.
“If you think you won the contest, raise your hand”, she asked even more smugly. Nobody raised their hand – including me, thankfully. My Spidey-sense was tingling that something was up, plus there was no reason for me to boast.
Turns out I did not win the contest because it was a proofreading contest. I had missed the single error in the 700-ish words I had typed. The teacher would confirm later that it was the all-time school record for words per minute, and the 99.9% accuracy was probably hard to beat as well. Alas, the percentage of errors that I had caught was 0%. One character was missing. My intuition told me something was off, but I simply couldn’t put my finger on it.
This same story could be applied to the best data visualization tip I learned in sixth grade, but the lesson I learned this time is:
If something seems off, it probably is.
When I am quality checking data sources, dashboards, or the user experience of my designs, this experience routinely makes an appearance in my mind. And for good reason. I find that nearly every single time something just seems off, further exploration usually reveals an error in either the data or the way the data visualization is displaying the data.
My personal approach to creating decision-ready dashboards includes two distinct quality assurance steps; once after the data is prepared to visualize and once before the data visualization is shared. In addition to triangulating the data to ensure the data for the dashboard matches the data sources, if at any point something just seems off, I dig until I find the reason.
In data visualization, as in my seventh grade typing class, the contest isn’t to create the best perceived work; it’s to create the most accurate work that can cause a positive impact.
Thanks for reading,