Make it visible

Also known as

At least related: Big Visible Charts

Motivation

"There is no more powerful way to prove that we know something well than to draw a simple picture of it. And there is no more powerful way to see hidden solutions than to pick up a pen and draw out the pieces of our problem."

– Dan Roam, The Back of a Napkin

A burndown chart is the perfect example of a visualization that allows you to understand in a glance where the team is heading. It's questionable if a picture really says more than a thousand words (I personally think a thousand words actually say more), but a proper visualization does a much better job capturing the essence.

Applicability

Visualization is a tool that comes in handy in all sorts of circumstances. Dan Roam cuts the problem solving process into four phases, and suggests visualization techniques to help you through each of these phases:

  • Looking = Collecting and screening
  • Seeing = Selecting and clumping
  • Imagining = Seeing what isn't there
  • Showing = Making it all clear

Application

Don't hesitate

First of all, if you are convinced that you have a way of using visualization to show what's out there, to reveal patterns, to compare some ideas or to sell a particular one, then you don't hesitate; you just do it. For some people, that's harder than others. However, Dan Roam is convinced everyone can do it. All you need to be able to do is draw a line, draw a circle, a face and some arrows.

Where to start

If you don't know where to start, it might be good to check the Visual Thinking Codex. It offers suggestions on the kind of pictures to use in various circumstances.

Stick it on the wall

A visualization is not going to be helpful at all if it sits somewhere on a network drive. It should be out there in the open, for everyone to see. Don't hesitate to use the space surrounding you or your audience. Stick it on the wall, plaster the elevator, be creative.

Hand-drawn, informal and casual

Consider casual, hand-drawn, informal and even messy in favor of smooth, formal, polished and tool generated. There are many reasons why. First of all, in most cases, jotting something down by hand is just going to be way faster than by using a tool. If a hand-drawn picture tells as much as a tool-drawn picture, then spending hours on getting something fancy is just waste.

Other than that, hand-drawn, informal and improvised pictures are often easier to remember than cold, formal and tool-generated diagrams.

And last but not least, collective design efforts result in hand-drawn, informal and improvised type of diagrams any way. At the end of a collective design effort, when there is consensus on how to move forward based on an informal diagram drawn on a whiteboard, what would be the value of turning it into a formal diagram. The hand-drawn diagram is still imprinted on everyone's retina. Chances are that turning it into a formal diagram is only going to make it harder for people to understand.

If you want tools any way

Here are some of the tools we use:

  • Omnigraffle: informal but pretty.
  • Graphviz: not that pretty, but extremely convenient in taking care of the heavy-lifting.
  • Google Visualization API: pretty decent, again very convenient for preventing you from having to manually draw the same diagram over and over again.
  • Protovis: if you are into automating things, then Protovis draws awesome pictures, but it might be a little harder to use than - say - Google visualizations.
  • Raphael: if neither Google nor Protovis support the kind of diagrams you want to generate, Raphael is your next best option.

References

  1. The Back of a Napkin, Dan Roam
  2. Gapminder, http://www.gapminder.org/
  3. Notation and Representation in Collaborative Object-Oriented Design, Uri Dekel and Herbsleb
  4. Protovis, http://vis.stanford.edu/protovis/
  5. Google Visualization API, http://code.google.com/apis/charttools/index.html
  6. Raphaël, http://raphaeljs.com/
  7. The Visual Thinking Codex_, Dan Roam, http://www.thebackofthenapkin.com/pdf/TBOTN_codex.pdf

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