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Big Data

Making sense of charts/graphs shouldn’t end with a four-letter word!


Before I get into this post, some news to share with everyone!  I’ve recently transitioned from consulting to industry – I am now a Principal Product Manager in Mobile Banking solutions for a company called Fiserv.  I am really excited about the change and welcome any advice or guidance on how to make this transition a success as well as any topic suggestions in the product management space.

Now, to the topic at hand – I want to draw your attention to the chart to the left.  For context, this was the monstrosity released by the Joint Economic Committee minority, which is led by Senator Sam Brownback (R-Kansas) and Representative Kevin Brady (R-Texas).  You can download a copy here but do so with caution (it’s an eye chart!).  As stated by Charles Blow of the New York Times, “…they’re using this chart like a drunken man uses lampposts – for support rather than for illumination.”

Trying to interpret charts like this or any other visuals you encounter can, at times, feel overwhelming and cumbersome.  For times like that, I’ve come up with a pretty simplistic yet effective acronym to structure the interpretation process and share it with you – C.H.A.R.T.

1.  Commit to the context  Before you jump into interpreting the chart, take a walk around it and understand the context.  The intent here is to merely understand how the visual intends to showcase the information.  In tactical terms, understanding the context includes thoroughly understanding the title, the legend and any color scheme being employed, the axes and surrounding attributes, the footnotes, and such.  But most importantly, don’t jump into interpreting until you’ve gone through this step!

2.  Highlight the obvious – Slowly start “putting your feet into the water” and highlight obvious insights, patterns, or trends.  Using the Health Care System chart as a pedagogical device, four examples of obvious insights include, 1) the Secretary of Health & Human Services plays an important coordination role, 2) the system relies on public & private sector participation through complex relationships, 3) the system requires some stakeholders to change and others to remain the same, and 4) many complex relationships drive the new system.  A strong fundamental understanding of any chart/visual coupled with the in-depth insights enables you to effectively articulate a comprehensive storyline.

3.  Aim for insights – Now we’re getting into the meat of the interpretation.  Armed with your fundamental understanding, try to identify deeper insights related to your context – i.e., ask yourself, “What patterns, trends, or relationships in this data matter to me?”  If I am a Healthcare Payer (i.e., insurance company), I may identify the need to be more disciplined or rigorous in monitoring and managing transaction costs because of the complex relationships introduced in the new health care system.

4.  Review your conclusions – By this point in time, you’ve identified some obvious things and also have some in-depth insights, so just take a minute to review your conclusions and build confidence in the interpretations you’ve made.  Pretty simple.

5.  Tell the story – Now put it all together and tell the story.  If you’ve followed the aforementioned process, this should be pretty simple.  Start with the context (e.g., “This chart is talking about…”), highlight the relevant and obvious (e.g., “You’ll notice that <obvious thing1>, <obvious thing 2>, and <obvious thing 3>, are happening…”), and finally, deep-dive into your insights (e.g., “this matters to us because <insight 1> and <insight 2>…”).  BOOM!  That’s the sound of you blowing everyone’s mind!

Hopefully, after reading this post and learning about the C.H.A.R.T method, you’ll feel less overwhelmed and greater confidence in interpreting charts/visuals.  As always, thanks for taking the time and I welcome and look forward to your feedback; especially, feedback on how this approach worked or didn’t work for you.


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