Data is much more than simply a collection of numbers. “It’s all about the human side of data,” Netherlands-based TULP Interactive’s data experience designer Jan Tulp told delegates at INMA’s Big Data for Media conference at Google London on Friday.

Tulp made the convincing case that data visualisation – presenting data in a way that users understand – is becoming increasingly important to understand and communicate in a data-driven world.

But why would someone want to visualise data? It’s simple: Humans work best when abstract concepts and data can be digested and stored without too much difficulty.

Tulp was quick to head off the next question: “What makes a good visualisation?” The bad news is the answer is, in part, “it depends.” The good news is Tulp provided some direction.

First, remember that content should explain by presenting insights and explore by helping audiences to discover these insights. Data, in other words, should tell a good story and make an impression. Ideally, Tulp said, people will be left thinking, “Wow, this story is really big and important!”

And second, visualisation should ask several key questions:

  • It should ask “what?” What type of data are you dealing with? What is its availability? What are its attributes?

  • It should ask “why?” Why do users want this data? Why do they want certain types of it?

  • It should ask “how?” How is the data arranged? How is it manipulated?

There are lots of questions to turn over, and these questions churn out lots of possibilities.

Tulp concluded with some advice about how to put the concept of visualisation into action: Primarily use prototypes, and figure out both what’s worked and what hasn’t. Entrepreneurially spirited visualisers should keep in mind that real data should be used to create various sorts of data visualisations, but the main thing to keep in mind is aesthetics.

In fact, even in his presentation, Tulp’s beautifully designed data-visualised charts and schematics shone a light on the importance of techniques and technologies used in creating engaged and engaging data visualisation.