ARTICLE: Trevor Minton

Data visualization design: How EdTech products can tell better stories to meet growing demands for actionable insights

As EdTech products grow more complex in terms of the data they manage and the analytics they produce, data visualization is poised to become an indispensable tool. To date, many of these products have yet to fully embrace data visualization design in their product interfaces.

Primarily, journalism, finance, and healthcare are leading the charge to leverage data for smarter insights and direction for their users. As the expectations of students, instructors and administrators grow, it will almost certainly be considered a baseline requirement soon. Now, though, data visualization represents a major opportunity for EdTech companies seeking to differentiate themselves from the competition by presenting fresh insights using the data captured by their products. 

If your EdTech product team doesn’t yet have data visualization design capabilities, it’s time to start building that muscle. 

What is Data Visualization? Tools and Techniques

Data visualization is, at its core, a form of storytelling. As a discipline, it recognizes that all data has stories to tell. The goal of data visualization is to tell those stories using graphic representations in order to reveal new insights. The visual artifacts of data visualization are simple in and of themselves. Charts, graphs, maps, infographics, animated sequences and dashboards that present multiple types of data displays are the norm.

Data visualization makes the information contained by data much more accessible to users by converting numerical outputs into easily digestible visual forms. In many ways, then, data visualization acts as a sort of translator. 

But data visualization design isn’t just about regurgitating data in tidy visual packages. More importantly, it’s concerned with using advanced analytics to capture, process, and deliver actionable insights from a mountain of otherwise unintelligible data. Done well, data visualization tells unexpected stories that help users achieve their goals or do their jobs better. It produces “aha!” moments and provides an additional dimension of value to users. 

Moving the Needle: EdTech Products and the Growing Need for Data Visualization Design

Data is at the heart of most software products, and EdTech is no exception. The Navitas Ventures report, Global EdTech Landscape 3.0, notes that educational institutions are challenged to provide data required to enable better decision making that improves outcomes in the areas of student retention and graduation rates. 

In their infancy, EdTech products provided users with streamlined digital repositories for their data. These products collected, stored, and served up data as efficiently as possible, all while presenting it in a more appealing and easy-to-manage interface. Since then, EdTech products have matured by leaps and bounds. And the expectations of users have matured along with them. Users no longer expect products simply to store and retrieve data. They expect products to leverage data in insightful ways that help them make smarter decisions and achieve better results. Most any personal finance or health-related app already does this by suggesting customized changes in spending or eating habits based on a user’s personal data, for example. 

This means that your product needs to go beyond just storing data. It must parse the data and discover patterns in order to make relevant predictions, identify underlying issues, and suggest possible solutions. Data visualization is the means by which your product can tell these compelling and useful data-driven stories. 

For example, let’s consider a hypothetical EdTech product that is used for grading. Such a product could use data visualization not only to provide a snapshot of how a group of students is currently performing in a course, but also to identify data-driven predictors of success or failure. In this case, data visualization might be used to identify a link between a specific number of absences and a percentage decline in grades. It might even identify specific students for whom certain proactive interventions may be helpful. 

Getting Started With Data Visualization Design

Your product team needs to have a plan to incorporate data visualization into your product offerings. That means you’ll need to bolster your data visualization design capabilities by hiring an internal data visualization designer or partnering with an agency that has this expertise. 

It’s important to know that while data visualization design is related to UX design, it isn’t just an extension of it. It is its own unique skill set. Many highly skilled UX product design teams find that creating displays for complex data is a very different animal. It’s one thing to work out usable flows and controls for the input, collection, and organization of data, but another thing entirely to tell meaningful stories with that data. 

Take dashboards, for example. If you’re thinking of adding data visualization to your product, a dashboard representing several different streams of data is a great place to start. The thing is, it’s deceptively challenging to create a truly useful dashboard. Too often, product dashboards are beautiful data displays that don’t actually offer any new insights. The ability to do that begins with data analytics that are informed by a deep understanding of users, what motivates them, and the objectives they are trying to achieve.

Today’s users rightfully expect their digital products and apps to make them smarter. It’s our job as Edtech product leaders to ensure that our software meets that expectation.


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    Trevor Minton

    As CXO at Openfield, Trevor collaborates closely with our clients and ensures that our team delivers world-class design thinking and execution that results in strong emotional connections between users and digital products. He is passionately enthusiastic about music, local and international soccer, automotive design and racing, and getting under the hood of his old but new-to-him BMW to keep it on the road for another couple of decades.

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