Beyond Data Visualization: Using Interactivity to Engage Your Audience

"Building Blocks," by Chris Jordan, is an art piece that uses scale to depict the annual number of highschool dropouts in the US.
“Building Blocks,” by Chris Jordan, is an art piece that uses alphabet blocks to depict the annual number of highschool dropouts in the US (click for the full image).

Numbers and statistics are a vital part of any modern data-driven business—or personal life. But unfortunately, simply shouting numbers from the rooftop doesn’t tend to change peoples’ minds.

There are too many alternative stories and interpretations (not to mention distractions) competing for an audience’s attention to allow one little piece of information to reshape a worldview.

There are lots of ways to overcome the problem of distraction: using engaging visuals and good design, finding a catchy “hook,” and answering an interesting question are all good places to start.

But once you’ve figured out how to overcome the distractions that may prevent your viewers from thinking about your data, it’s time to go deeper and find ways to connect with your audience. If they feel a connection with your data, they’ll be much more likely to integrate it into their thinking.

Theater of the Mind

The human mind is extremely powerful. It can impose structure, stories, and patterns on seemingly unconnected things, resulting in new insights. If your data supports a conclusion your audience already believes, you’re in luck!

The brain’s natural systems will sort the data into its rightful place. But if your audience is predisposed to disagree with your data, the brain will work overtime to resolve this “cognitive dissonance”—usually by dismissing the new, uncomfortable information.

It’s important to ease your audience in if you’re proposing a new or controversial idea. Letting your audience connect the dots themselves is an easy way to engage their pattern-finding specialties, so that the brain’s power works for you.

If you seem to be having trouble “getting through” with your data, especially if you’re pretty sure it has a clear message, invite your audience to participate in the interpretation of your data using things like interactivity, guesswork, the five senses, and rewards for engagement.

Interactivity

Scroll Down

See the “scroll down” instruction at the bottom? Click to visit the site and see what happens!

Interactivity is much more than a buzzword. It’s a way to involve viewers in the story, letting them fill in the pieces and take ownership of the information. Data on its own can feel preachy or high-handed, but if you let your audience tell the story and then suggest ways to fill in the gaps, they will be much more willing to process the information.

Good forms of interactivity make the user feel in control.

This site, which proposes “an alternative view of London,” tells the viewer to “scroll down,” which seems like a simple, common request. But in this case, scrolling triggers animations, drawings, and photos instead of a simple “page down,” and this surprising response to a common action piques viewer interest because their actions had a clear, interesting impact on what they saw on the screen.

Interactive presentations like the Gapminder World graph accomplish the same thing by encouraging viewers to ask and answer their own questions by comparing axes, making the audience feel in control.

Guesswork

If you really want your viewers to think about a problem, ask them to guess what the data will look like before you give it to them. Suddenly, they have a vested interest in an abstract problem, because they want to know how close they got to the “right” answer.

As this New York Times article illustrated, guesswork can be a good, friendly way to invite your audience to reconsider their assumptions, especially if many people make the same mistakes.

Encourage your audience to brainstorm reasons they might have missed the mark together, rather than telling them the answer right away. People are much more willing to listen to ideas they came up with themselves!

Speak to the Senses

If your data will be viewed on a computer, it’s easier than ever to engage viewer senses. Sound (make sure it’s optional!), movement (especially animation and video), and even engagement through touch are all possible using today’s technology.

Birds

This art piece depicts the number of birds killed by agricultural products every day in the United States. It zooms out on the website to show the scale of the problem (click to view the full image).

If you have a chance to put together a presentation in the real world, the options are endless. You can play with scale to make a big impact as in the artwork by Chris Jordan, or have viewers physically participate in a display.

Reward Engagement

Whatever route you take to increase engagement, remember that if you want repeat visits, you need to reward that engagement.

Every click, every scroll of the mouse wheel, every action taken by the viewer should correspond to a clear and obvious reward—more information, an interesting sound byte, or an unexpected animation.

How you tie it to your message is up to you!