Using Visuals to Present and Explain Qualitative Data

Categories: Creative Methods, Focus Series, Multimodal, Presentation, Visuals, and Creativity, Qualitative, Research

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A MethodSpace focus for May is on ways to use visuals to represent key ideas, themes in the data, and results of the study, in qualitative, quantitative, and mixed methods research and evaluation. Find all posts in this unfolding series.

We welcome Lydia Hooper for guest posts about qualitative research uses of data visualization. See Lydia’s previous MethodSpace posts: Using Visuals to Present and Explain Qualitative Data, Using Visuals to Support Your Writing Process, and Share Research Visually. See Lydia’s website to learn more about her work related to using visuals in research and evaluation.

Visual Options for Qualitative Researchers

By Lydia Hooper

As important as exploratory visuals are for increasing your own clarity and understanding, most of the time they will not be the same visual you use to help others increase theirs. The visual you might use as a tool for your thinking will naturally reflect your own particular way of thinking. Consider how often you have seen a visual used in a presentation slide that you felt was out of place, that didn’t have enough context for you to understand it and therefore left you just more confused.

Whereas I consider exploratory visuals to be about communicating with the data, explanatory visuals are about communicating with others about the data. To be effective, explanatory visuals must reflect the knowledge and thinking not of the creator but of the viewer. Creating these doesn’t come naturally, but it is still well worth the time and effort required.

Explanatory visuals have the potential to help us:

  • Capture attention – This should not be underestimated; these days attention is in shorter and shorter supply.
  • Increase speed of understanding – Let’s face it, many people simply won’t take the time to read a long report.
  • Maximize retention – We remember visuals more easily than just text.
  • Stimulate sharing – We also share them more frequently.
  • Spur action – Visuals are more emotive; we make decisions based on emotions, using reason to justify our decisions afterwards.

Best types of visuals for explaining

Whether you intend to share your data in a report, presentation, or other format, consider first the pros and cons of the type of visual medium you might use:

  • Photos – Pros: Fairly easy to find and very evocative. Cons: Less flexible; it can be hard to find something precise.
  • Graphics – Pros: Super flexible and able to be highly technical. Cons: Time consuming to create and generally are less emotive/approachable.
  • Drawings – Pros: Can be very specific and appear very inviting. Cons: Steep learning curve at first and can connote less seriousness.

Once you select the medium(s), you will also have to make choices about what to represent visually:

  • Objects are great for triggering specific memories, for example of foods or household items
  • People, especially their faces, are powerful tools for stirring connection and empathy
  • Landscapes are good for accompanying big ideas and key experiences
  • Basic symbols or icons usually add little meaning but they are good for directing focus to text nearby

If you would like to use a diagram, these are the ones most people are familiar with seeing and therefore are best for explanatory purposes:

  • Circle map
  • Venn diagram
  • Quadrant or 2×2 matrix
  • Flow chart
  • Feedback loop

Basic design tips

After you’ve outlined what you plan to show and how you plan to show it, and it comes time to put pen to paper, it can be easy to get overwhelmed by all the choices you’ll need to make that will determine the specific style of your visuals. Here are some simple guidelines to follow to help you make the best choices possible.

Don’t use software defaults. The best way to avoid this is to not start with software. Most design software is not designed to help you work out ideas. Sketch out ideas ahead of time so you know exactly what you plan to create before you even touch a computer.

Do use color and size to help them focus on what’s important. Use clear headings and subheadings for text, ideally that identify the question the visual will answer, and use smaller text for any accompanying annotations or descriptions. Use a limited number of colors; note that blues and greens naturally fade backward while reds and yellows jump out.

Don’t bog the viewer down with clutter. It will be hard to capture your viewer’s attention if there are too many things for their eyes to grab onto. This includes too much text, too much color, or visuals that don’t add meaning. After you are done with your first draft, print it out, then use a pen to cross out any elements that aren’t absolutely necessary. Your second draft will be so much better. In presentations, follow the 10/20/30 rule (ten slides in twenty minutes and no font smaller than thirty points) and the 5/5/5 rule (no more than five words per line of text, five lines of text per slide, or five text-heavy slides in a row).

Do practice, practice, practice! It is the only way to improve your skills. To help you make the critical transition from knowledge of best practices to application which is the root of true understanding, be sure to get my free workbook on Using Human-Centered Design to Visualize Qualitative Data! I also offer monthly live online training sessions via my Patreon page.

If you are curious to learn more, you can read this article on my blog and leave me a comment with your questions!

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