NOTE: There is a updated version of this post & visualization: Click Here. ]

We all deal with data and we do our best to crunch it and munch it and scrunch it and beat it to death to find some actionable insights. Then we go up against a “committee” or to a decision maker and present our insights only to cause a lot less action to be taken than we had originally anticipated.

Effective communication of reports / data / insights / tables / graphs / stuff is extremely hard, and it is harder still in the complex ecosystem that is the web where there are sixteen things changing all the time and many numbers look different and data is hard to trust. (All the more reason that we internalise the limitations and “get over it”.)

My thoughts went to all of the above when I first saw:  Death and Taxes: A visual look at where your tax dollars go by Jesse Bachman. Here is a smaller version of Jesse’s amazing piece of art:

Death and Taxes

The visual you see above represents how the US government spends it budget (E d i t: The graph shows "2004 Federal Discretionary Budget", so excludes "fixed costs" such as social security and medicare. Post "entitlements" the graph shows how our elected representatives spend the portion of our money they are allowed to spend.) Talk about representing something extremely complex that perhaps very few people in the US government have a handle on.

It took Jesse a full year to produce this visual. Jesse’s self state goal was: “Most people are unaware of how much of their taxes fund our military, and those aware are often misinformed. Well here it is. Laid out, easy to read and compare. With data straight from the White House.”

The shrunk down version above does not quite do the visual enough justice, please see the full size version. The first post on that page contains a link to the full version which is 3500×2333 and 1.8 mb. Viewed at the highest resolution your monitor will support I am positive that you’ll be impressed by all the detail. That regardless of your political leanings.

Death and Taxes Jesse Bachman ex21

Indeed the true majesty of Jesse’s visual, and testament to the hard work it took, is that it is really easy to understand it with very little explanation, I would even go so far as to say that it requires no explanation at all. Even the more simplest of brains (mine) to the most complex of brains (say Dr. Hawking) would find insights right away (he sooner than I of course : )).

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Each of us will see this visual and interpret something different, above you see details of spending on education and NASA. The author raises these questions:

  • Why do we spend more on jets than we do on public housing?
  • Why is the Endowment for the Arts so small?
  • What's with all this foreign military financing?

You will see other things that you might find interesting. Without betraying my political thoughts I can say that for me this was a surprising piece of data in the discussion that is on the deviantart website: “The US Institute of Peace receives 27 million dollars next year. The Defence Department receives 560 … billion.”

So what’s this got to do with the world of Web Insights?

All too often we are tasked to run reports in our favourite Web Analytics tool or present our analysis of our survey or lab usability data. Often we fall back on what Omniture or WebTrends or ClickTracks or HBX can provide, they do all make it easy to export into excel. Sometimes we will take raw data and give it a spin in excel ourselves.

For me visuals that provide awesome insights come from 1) a deep understanding of the goal / objectives 2) from thinking beyond what standard trend lines or stacked bar graphs can provide. Something non-normal to grab attention and yet communicate insights (sort of already contain recommendations and action items and not just data, as Jesse’s great visual does).

I’ll use my blog data to illustrate these principles. The goal for my blog, or perhaps any blog, is to engage its readers.

“Engagement”, or the much maligned “Stickiness”, for me is a combination of readers spending more time on the website (hence consuming content) and page views (this is harder on the blog where the first page has 12 posts on it).

There are many different ways to graphs this information (close your mind and imagine the many possibilities : )).

Inspired by Jesse’s visual I used ClickTracks to segment the data by my top sources of traffic and then created this graph to help me identify the most valuable sources of traffic as defined by three things:

  1. Amount of traffic from different sources (and there is some duplication, non-us could also be Yahoo Group)
  2. # of pages viewed in each session
  3. Average number of seconds spent on the blog

Here is the resulting graph (please click on the image below for a larger version of the graph):

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This does not take long. It took me around 15 mins from start of thinking on what I should do from Jesse’s visual to creating the segments on ClickTracks and then the graph in excel.

Each circle represents a traffic source, size of circle represents size of traffic. Time on Site on X axis and Page View per Visitor on Y axis.

While a million miles away from Jesse’s excellence this graph above is quite effective in my little world, for my little problem, to tell me a few key insights (and as I promised each insights provides a action):

  • Love the people in the Yahoo Web Analytics Group, good chunk of them come and stay and read etc. Action: Print t-shirts with the blog’s address and send it to them.
  • People searching for me by name, while small, seem to be the next best source of traffic and they come from google. Action: WordPress plugin that will auto-generate site map and upload into google after creation of each blog post was a great idea.
  • I am surprised that almost all segments fall beyond 50 seconds, higher than I would have anticipated. Action: Content is king baby.

What do you think? Either of Jesse’s work or my much smaller inspired attempt? If you had the same three dimensions for blog success do you have a idea to visualise it more effectively? I would love to have your feedback. Positive, negative or otherwise.

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PS: The post this week comes from one of the most visually appealing places in the world, Hawaii. Aloha!!

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