Avoiding pitfalls in your final project: Story and Narrative

We’ve gotten some feedback from you that the sort of “story” we were looking for you to tell in Assignment 4 was somewhat ambiguous. Is an exploratory visualization telling a story? Or is that what an explanatory visualization does?

The answer is that both types can tell a story. The key question is, given your objective, what do you want to in a sense guarantee that your viewer will walk away with? What are you suggesting more subtly, and what do you want them to discover on their own? The point is to have these takeaways in mind, and use the elements of storytelling discussed in lecture to help guide the viewer through. Even if you decide to create an exploratory visualization, you are not exempt from applying storytelling concepts in your final project.

The biggest pitfall is probably the idea that you can plop the viewer in front of your visualization and assume they have an internal drive to explore your data on their own and draw their own conclusions. This may be the case; certainly if your job depends on it, you’re motivated. But broader audiences have more casual motivations, and you need to think hard about how to capture their attention, draw them in, and tell your story. You can leave them to play on their own—in fact, that can be the main function of your visualization. But you still have to pay attention to how you stimulate and maintain their interest.

The point is that exploring a detailed interactive visualization such as those we talk about in class requires a significant investment of cognitive resources on the part of the viewer. Think about it—you’re essentially asking your audience to learn an entirely new interface. Avoid the pitfall of assuming your audience will come already highly motivated to explore your visualization. And if the viewer has only a little bit of time or effort to spare, can they still get something out of your visualization?