4 Tips for Better Data Visualization on Mobile Devices

Demand for data visualization on mobile devices is on the rise, both in the consumer and business spaces. Whether it is stock price performance or sensor fluctuations in a production plant, data in enterprise helps in monitoring operations, optimizing processes and quickly making informed decisions. One of the challenges in providing uninterrupted access to visualized information is the drastic reduction in screen size when moving from a desktop or laptop to a tablet or a smartphone. Best practices for print or large screen graph presentations are unsuitable: chart titles, axis labels, and other graph elements on a small screen are clutter rather than useful information. Nonetheless, effective data visualization on mobile devices can be accomplished by following these recommendations.

1. Determine what your users need

Before starting graph design for a mobile screen, gather particulars about what kind of data and what kind of format should be presented so that the charts best meet your users’ needs. For example, while temperature data are typically presented on line graphs, a user who really needs to know only how today’s temperature compares to tomorrow’s forecast might be completely satisfied by a numerical representation of a few data points rather than an actual chart. Understanding how users utilize information rather than in what form they expect to see the data will give designers more freedom to explore functional solutions to the problem.

2. Reduce standard graphs to bare bones

Visualized data, when accessed on a mobile device, are typically part of an app that was built for a specific function. For example, various banking apps show user account balances, pending payments and even breakdowns of various spending categories. When a user engages with an app, she has a specific purpose which provides context to the data that will be accessed. For that reason, graph titles, axis labels and other supporting elements can usually be omitted.

3. Take advantage of mobile device capabilities

Mobile device as a data display platform is great for interactive graphs. First, screen orientation (portrait vs. landscape) affords different pros and cons for chart displays. While portrait mode may work very well for a bar chart with a few data points, landscape mode is superior for line graphs. Second, interactions with the graph offer numerous opportunities to provide the user with detailed information that he may need while avoiding clutter on the screen. For example, pinching and zooming on a line graph could show the user changes in data over different periods of time, affording a historical glimpse of the trend as well as a very close look at data over the last hour. Similarly, tapping on individual bar graphs could bring up a modal containing a precise data label for the value.

Moreover, isolating a data point from a graph could give user access to detailed information about the data, allow her to take specific actions such as forward data to a colleague, attach a note, print graph and so on. Alternatively, a drawer that contains detailed information and slides onto the screen from the side of the graph is a good way to avoid visual clutter while increasing data density and preserving more specific information. Here, the user would only need to tap on a point in the graph to access details.

4. Follow design best practices

When designing the chart for a mobile app, especially when it is meant to support business processes or tasks, it is critical that information is legible for users given their work conditions. For example, if app users work on day and night shifts, the graph design should accommodate different lighting conditions for this group. Graphs with higher contrast work best in varying light conditions. Charts that contain multiple data sets (more than one line, for instance) require even greater contrast as two lines of similar hue may be indistinguishable from one another on the device screen.

Additionally, typography should follow the information hierarchy using appropriate size and weight for the level of importance. Avoid compressed type used in print materials as it will be more difficult to read. Similarly, avoid creating interactive graph elements that are smaller than suggested by guidelines for tappable areas. Moreover, assess how modals and pop-ups that are used to supplement graphs affect the users’ ability to extract meaningful information. Conducting a usability test with the graph and measuring the Standard Usability Score (SUS) will help ensure that visualized data meets users needs effectively.

In conclusion

User research should inform design requirements for data visualization. By stripping down graphs that are typically made for print and large screen presentations to their bare bones, you will be able to reduce chart clutter and help your users to better comprehend the presented information. Taking full advantage of the interactions available on mobile devices and weighing the pros and cons of various graphing libraries available to the developers will help ensure that the graph will be interesting, engaging, and, most importantly, informative to your users.

This blog post was written with Stuart Conway and originally published here.

User Research as a Business Strategy

I originally published this blog in January 2015. Instead of rewriting the same ideas in new words, I’m reposting the contents of that post and discuss why conducting user research (not market research!) is a smart business strategy.

Why user research?

Mobile app demand is at an all-time high in both the business-to-business (B2B) and business-to-enterprise (B2E) domains as companies strive for an advantage against their competition. While third-party mobile tools are emerging and might seem like a quick and good solution, they are not always the optimal mobile strategy. Such off-the-shelf solutions, even when industry or work-role specific, are developed for no particular combination of users and company. Sometimes such products meet business needs, but often times they do not. Because success of any software project critically depends on user adoption, generic mobile tools can be an unprofitable investment if they fail to support users in the context of their work. Specifically, a mobile solution must optimize operations as performed in a specific company – even a well developed software package that does not fit within the particular ecosystem of a given business will not be used.

This is particularly true of B2B and B2E domains where workers with identical job titles that are employed by two different companies operate in distinct environments using specific tools and follow disparate workflows. In fact, 60% of software development efforts produce substandard or ineffective products in large part due to lack of clear project requirements that address business and user needs. Investing in user research as part of the company’s mobile strategy, on the other hand, can greatly improve user adoption of technology, target specific business objectives, and yield returns beyond the initial investment.

Stakeholders Carry Incomplete or Incorrect Assumptions about Users

Project stakeholders often outline broad business objectives, but not the specific requirements that are truly necessary for the implementation of a mobile solution. For example, should a mobile data-entry form be in a portrait or a landscape view? Should it have an automatic save feature? Do certain fields need to be emphasized over others? Do users need to export the forms or look up old ones? While stakeholders may have answers to some questions pertaining to a particular mobile project, they often carry incomplete or wrong assumptions about the users. Lack of clear requirements for a product and relying on an opinion or an uninformed preference can jeopardize the project.

User Research Determines Specific Product Requirements

User research uncovers and formulates very specific and explicit requirements for a product. Ethnographic research or contextual inquiries yield insights into User Experience (UX) by exposing user needs, tasks and workflows, environment, tools, motivations and attitudes. For instance, UX research on a mobile data-entry form for industrial warehouse inspections might reveal that additional features beyond those originally requested by stakeholders would drive bigger business improvements than the initially defined feature set. Research may reveal that inspections would be more efficient if users could attach photos of equipment and tag them with notes and information about the visited location and pull up historical records of previous inspections. These insights allow for better formulated user personas that not only help in deciding the best solution between using an off-the-shelf package, customizing an existing product, or building a full custom application, but also focus and guide the design, and any development efforts that follow.

User research also significantly informs visual direction of a product by employing the User-Centered Design (UCD) methodology. For example, if users wear gloves and their interaction with the mobile device requires a stylus, the interactions with the interface will differ from what it would have been if the app was created for complex hand gestures. Similarly, the color palette and contrast will be greatly influenced by users’ lighting conditions. A mobile solution developed with UCD methodology improves UX by removing workflow bottlenecks, facilitating tasks, and presenting users with intuitive, user-friendly and aesthetically appealing interfaces. The likelihood of accomplishing this is greatly reduced without user research.

UX and UCD Target Business Objectives

Engaging in UX and UCD processes with industry experts like ChaiOne uncovers very particular product requirements that throw the one-size-fits-all attitude out the window and targets specific business objectives. First, expertise in an industry allows for smooth communication among all parties (e.g., stakeholders, users, researchers, designers, developers, managers, etc.) because everyone shares a common understanding of the terminology, context of the industry, its operations, business motivations, and challenges. Second, the expert possesses collective background knowledge about user needs, experiences, motivations, attitudes, workflows, user pain-points and so on. This allows a better focus in research and targeting of questions to uncover areas for improvement to the specific mobile product that is being implemented, people who will use it, and the business that the mobile app is intended to profit.

UX Yields Significant ROI

In a typical scenario, failure to conduct user research creates the risk of spending scarce time and resources to build a generic tool that fails to increase the effectiveness and efficiency of users or optimize the company’s processes, and therefore yields no sizable return on investment. In the worst case, as software failures in the enterprise illustrate, ignoring UX and UCD can significantly harm an organization by implementing a tool that negatively impacts operations, slows processes, and leaves the company behind its competition or worse.

The seriousness of such consequences is underlined by 93% of executives placing UX as one of the strategic priorities of their businesses. As mobile solutions become integral to business operations, and as the Internet of Things (IoT) and wearable technology find their ways into the B2B and B2E space, companies wishing to remain leaders in their industry must persist in developing tools that continue to optimize their business processes. Understanding the value of UX and its benefits for a business is the first sure step toward success.

Mobile Device Screen Size and UX

For a device with a small screen, you must limit the number of features to those that matter the most for the mobile-use case. Even on desktop computers, precious pixels are the world’s most valuable real estate.

These wise words, no-brainers to some, come from Jakob Nielsen and Raluca Budiu’s Mobile Usability book (p. 52). The authors highlight the need to balance available screen space with the amount of information that is presented; too little as well as too much information will create a poor mobile user experience.

How to determine what’s appropriate?

  1. Conduct user research to determine requirements for design
  2. Follow design best practices in the mobile user-centered design philosophy
  3. Conduct heuristic evaluations and usability testing
  4. Tweak design based on insights from step 3


Heuristic Evaluation Checklist for Smartphones and Tablets

A heuristic evaluation checklist developed specifically for assessing usability of mobile devices has recently been published by a team from Spain. The authors combined standard software heuristic checklists from leading authorities in the field, and adapted them for evaluating touchscreen devices. The checklist was tested with non-trained engineers who were able to effectively identify usability gaps of a design. The authors argue that “selecting and rearranging these heuristic guidelines offer a tool which works well not just for evaluation but also as a best-practices checklist.” See their Supplementary Materials for the entire checklist.