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What Is Hard to Discover

Data Doesn’t Tell Stories, People Do

Once Upon a Time Chart

Many years ago, I was interviewing a portfolio manager about how he uses financial information. He said something that has resonated with me to this day: “Every number that I include in my quarterly reports to clients has a story behind it. I won’t meet with my clients until I know what that story is—no matter whether it’s good or bad about their portfolio’s performance. Otherwise, they’re going to bring their own story to it.”

It’s a common error of judgment for designers to assume they know what stories will be told from data. We create donut charts and graphs and tables and many other sorts of data visualization that are meant to communicate particular meanings. 

But data doesn’t tell stories. People do. 

Ask yourself: “What stories do you think people will bring to the data?” Take your designs with real data in place—if legally allowable—and see if the story in your head and the story that your users tell you are the same. 

You’ll always be surprised at what you discover.


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