Building Data Visualization for Mobile

Let's face it: If you're not thinking mobile, you're probably in the wrong industry. Smartphones and tablets have forever changed the way that humans expect to interact with applications. The iTunes and Google Play stores are full of shiny, well-designed, interactive apps. They cause users to want all data visualizations to be accessible via mobile devices, and to look and feel like apps.

The first figure below shows a complex data viz that would be very hard to navigate on a mobile device because of the amount of information and the numerous drill down menus. The second figure below, on the other hand, shows a simplified but easy-to-digest and clear data viz that was built with mobile devices in mind. Notice the great use of white space, text, and location intelligence.

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You need to have a mobile-first mindset when you're developing a data visualization. You should do several things:

  • Make it intuitive. One thing that everyone loves about apps is that you don't have to read a manual before using them. Be sure to carry this same experience over to your data visualizations on mobile devices. By using visual cues and clever treatments of colors, fonts, and textures, you make your data visualization easy to digest on a desktop computer or a mobile device.

  • Account for reduced design space. The average mobile device today is 3" to 10" (length and width), which represents a loss of almost half the screen real estate available on desktops. To work on mobile devices, your data visualization must take reduced screen size into consideration with regard to fonts, menus, and overall display. Smaller devices force you to develop concise data visualizations that convey your points quickly and clearly.

  • Use native mobile functionality. Have you ever noticed that when you open an app on a mobile device and tap a menu, the specific menu for that device pops up? Be sure that all the menu options that you use in your data visualizations — be they drop-down menus or combo boxes — are compatible with all the mobile devices that your users may have. The last thing you want is for a user to get frustrated trying to use a data viz that doesn't work well on his device.

  • Enable sharing and social collaboration. Social collaboration is the name of the game in the 21st century. Your users expect to have an easy and intuitive way to share their data visualization findings with others. Be sure to make this capability native and not an afterthought.

  • Make data quality a priority. When your users can access your data visualizations at any time, from any place, it's important to ensure that your data visualization always outputs quality data. There's a high chance that if the system is outputting garbage data, one of your users will detect that problem before you do.

  • Be flexible. Part of the appeal of mobile apps is their interactivity, clean design, and capability to adapt quickly to new requirements. It is important that you develop or choose a mobile tool for your visualization that you can easily adapt to your users' needs.

  • Plan for BYOD (Bring Your Own Device). As policing the use of devices becomes a daunting task for IT, many companies are resorting to allowing their users to use their own devices in the workplace. When you're planning a data visualization, plan so that the data viz will work on the most common devices on the market: iOS devices, Android devices, and the BlackBerry.

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