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Two ways to build trust in your data visualisations
What do Aristotle and data visualisation have in common? More than you may think.
Hi there! 👋
Welcome to the first edition of The Plot. Since I announced the newsletter 24 hours ago, 200+ people subscribed to it! I’m very excited, and only a little nervous 🙃. To kick things off, we’ll talk about trust. To do so, let’s travel back in time to ancient Greece to meet Aristotle.
The name Aristotle should probably ring some bells. He’s considered to be the father of rhetoric — or, to use a more commonly known term — public speaking. He focused a lot of his thinking on what it means to be a good orator. Here is the definition he came up with:
An orator’s job is to define all available arguments for and against a given proposition, choose the ones that will hold most sway with your audience, and present them in the most convincing manner.
Does this sound familiar? To me, it seems like Aristotle defined the work of data designers, too. So much so, that I gave an entire talk about it at DataFest Tbilisi 2020.
In the talk, I discussed five lessons from public speaking that can make you a better information designer. The very first and foundational lesson was on building trust.
At the centre of Aristotle’s approach to rhetoric is a concept called ethos. Ethos is essentially answering the question, why should I trust you? If you’ve ever run a data or design training, you probably started by introducing yourself and your career. I did the same in the about section of this newsletter. We do that not to brag, but to show our audience we have expertise in the topic at play.
The idea of trust and trustworthiness is even more important in data visualisation. People often consider graphs as a source of truth. Andy Kirk defines trustworthiness as the first principle of good data visualisation design in his latest book. So how can you build trust with your audience when you communicate data? Let’s look at two ways to start with.
First, be transparent about any assumptions or caveats in the data.
The above chart is from the Datawrapper blog, from the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic. Even though we see a metric called current confirmed cases on the left, the designers warn us that the numbers are probably underestimated. They also link to the data source and even mention how often it is refreshed.
When reading that, I feel like the chart makers are being honest with me: the caveats in the data are communicated, and I can easily verify the numbers for myself. So next time you communicate data that is incomplete or has caveats, mention it. Show your audience you trust them, and they’ll trust you in return. And if you ever see a chart without a data source, be cautious!
Another way to build trust in your data designs is to pay attention to detail.
The above chart by FiveThirtyEight is very well thought-through. All the elements are aligned, the typefaces are consistent, and the labels are placed next to the data points. There is no clutter and no redundancy. The designers took the time to refine every single detail in the graph, which shows that their work matters to them, increasing trust. And you can do the same: double check your charts for design inconsistencies and typos. Show your audience that you care about the details, and that they should too.
When you design with ethos in mind, the audience will trust you. With time, it may even help you build a strong professional reputation.
If you’re curious to know four more principles from public speaking that can make you a better information designer, watch the full talk here. And if you’re hooked then, read the long form article about it on Medium.
I hope enjoyed this first edition of The Plot!
Thanks for reading, and see you in two weeks ✨