Visualizing enterprise data on mobile devices
Data has never been more important for a business as it is today. At the same time, it has never been more confounding for businesses to be able to interpret the data in a way that contributes to the organization’s progress. For data to be interpreted in the right way, it is important for it to be presented in a coherent manner.
The aspect that complicates efficient data presentation is the multiplicity of available device options. From bigger screens to laptop screens to mobile screens, the entire exercise of data visualization changes with a change in device. Expecting data visualization to have the same impact across different devices is like expecting the same training module to apply across different levels of employees. One size certainly does not fit all.
The problems with expecting traditional visualization to work on mobile devices are as follows:
- Limited display sizes
- Less powerful on-board hardware
- Input techniques are different and the hardware for input is inadequate for complex tasks
- Slower connectivity affects interactivity of applications
- Lack of powerful high level graphics libraries
- Large variability in form-factor, input peripherals and performance
- Perception of colors and graphics are altered in mobiles especially considering that they can adapt to external lighting conditions
- Application needs of users vary according to their roles and departments
- Mobile devices can be perceived as being secondary devices depending on the context of usage
Does this mean that it is impossible to visualize data? Certainly not! Given that mobile devices are where the future is, it is much more constructive to work on approaches that will suit them rather than slapping on visualization meant for larger screens.
Here are a few best practices that one can derive inspiration from:
Understand what the goals the visualization is meant to meet. Delve a little into the background. Familiarize yourself with the nature of the audience. Contextual understanding can prove to be a powerful tool when it comes to creating effective data visualization. Added to knowledge specific to every case, know-how of human visual perception and cognitive abilities is a must.
A paper on visualizing information for mobile devices by Luca Chittaro talks about why mapping is important to the process. Visual encoding of information is key to conveying the required insights to the audience. Chittaro says that “a precise mapping of data objects and relations and visual objects and relations needs to be defined and followed consistently”.
This is a classic problem that every business faces with data. How much is required? How much is too much? Too much data can confound and too little data can mislead. Not to mention the fact that mobile devices require concise data to facilitate cleaner comprehensible layouts. Finding the balance is simpler said than done. The only way to solve it is to figure out the right amount of data required to make a decision. Context could help here as well.
When designing data visualization for mobile devices, one can hardly ignore UI/UX parameters. Allow for vertical scrolling than horizontal scrolling since the former is more commonplace. Identify what type of charts work best on smaller screens. For instance, column, stacked columns, area charts, line charts, comparison charts and so on. Stack table cells instead of displaying them horizontally in a table. Define touch zones around closely clustered data.
How can user interaction be planned neatly around data? This is a question that is important with mobile devices. Interactive elements cannot be similar to those deployed on bigger screens. Limited screen size, input techniques are all to be taken into account here.
Nothing’s better than feedback from a sample group of users. Once visualization has been designed, take it for a test run with users. Observe and analyze what tweaks can make it more efficient.
There is no holy grail for data visualization on mobile devices. The best solution is one that combines an industry-specific, contextual representation with applicability across devices.