Data visualization tools: How to grow your business and get ahead

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Every business, no matter how big or small, generates data. And every business can learn and grow from this data. Many experts would argue that data analysis and business intelligence are the primary factors in determining whether a startup can successfully (and safely) grow. Data visualization tools can help you interpret data easily by turning it into quickly consumable visuals.

You might think data visualization is out of your wheelhouse. There was a time when this was likely true. But as with all things, technology has made this once incredibly technical skill available to all.

What is data visualization?

In its raw form, data is often a subset of numbers, survey responses, chunks of feedback, or any other piece of analytics you pull from your company or audience. Data visualization is a visual representation of business data, big data, and research. Data visualization can take many forms, including infographics, bar charts, interactive charts, pie charts, line charts, and any variation of these forms. Data visualization also includes heatmaps, which are visual depictions of how people navigate your site or emails.

It's easy for analysts and those close to data to interpret raw information. But for C-suite execs, salespeople, and customer service reps, technical data can seem foreign and overwhelming. Data visualizations distill information into a recognizable format, like a chart or interactive graph.

What are data visualization tools?

Data visualization was once limited to those with technical know-how: CSS, javascript, python, and Excel gurus. But data visualization tools have made it a self-service option that virtually anyone can access. Think of WordPress or any other site builder. These tools have turned site-building into something anyone can do, even without HTML or CSS knowledge. Data visualization tools have done the same for data.

Some tools will create barebones data visualizations, while others use machine learning to make interactive analyses. The degree of interactivity can vary. Some interactive data visualizations contain filters to toggle data on or off, while others give viewers the chance to overlay other data sets, change visualization types, and more.

7 reasons to use a data visualization tool

Companies need intelligence and data to make informed decisions. Data visualization tools can help steer you in the right direction. Here are seven reasons to consider using these tools:

1. Obtain user-friendly data

Data analytics is intimidating for pretty much everyone who isn't a data scientist. Data visualization tools make it possible for you to quickly turn data points and complex information into easily digestible charts. As a result, virtually anyone can reap the benefits of extensive research and hard data.

2. Go deeper with data analysis

Data analysis is a lot of work, but it can provide useful insights for your company. When you couple data sets with data visualizations, you have a recipe for more depth and better overall insights. For example, even a simple line graph can help you visualize where your data is shifting, or where your company is doing better or worse. While this is possible without the graph, the graph makes it easier to see more clearly.

3. Improve decision making

Data scientists are skilled at interpreting data for decision making, no matter how messy or convoluted it is. However, you don’t have to be an expert to understand data visualizations. Such tools make it easier for everyone in your company to make more informed, data-driven decisions. Think of it as the great democratization of data.

4. Get more out of existing big data

We live in a world of data. Big data, to be exact. Big data is essentially any big set of data you have, be it research, site analytics, customer feedback, or any other forms of data available in business intelligence. Data visualization tools allow you to understand big data in all its glory. 

With many data visualization tools, you can sync different sets of data across several sources. For example, you can see how your site traffic impacts sales in a visual manner, or how your financial projections correlate with marketing spend.

5. Notice patterns more quickly

It's easy to get lost when you're looking at months and months of data. It’s a bunch of numbers, after all. Data visualization tools make it easy to turn data sets into charts, graphs, and so on. Doing so allows you to see trends represented via a line graph or other chart, which is easier to detect than looking at countless numerical pairs.

6. Create social media content

Data visualizations are great for many internal reasons, but they also make eye-catching social media posts. For instance, say you notice an unexpected trend within your startup or industry. You can turn that into a flashy data visualization and create a piece of social media gold. Doing so can result in your brand getting traction online and reaching new audiences, which essentially amounts to free business marketing.

7. Save time

Data visualization software can save you time by enabling faster, more informed decision making. Imagine a data scientist trying to explain a quarter's worth of data and trends to a business lead. Now imagine how much faster that conversation would be if you had a simple, beautiful dashboard featuring charts and graphs to represent your quarterly performance.

5 tips for finding the best data visualization tool

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There's no single best data visualization tool. But there's likely the best tool for you. To make your choice a little easier, use this checklist before selecting any tools:

1. Research the learning curve

When researching tools, check user reviews to ensure a low learning curve. In most cases, data visualization tools make dense information more accessible. Still, there are tools that have counterintuitive user interfaces or are geared toward developers. Unless you have a tech-savvy team or firsthand knowledge, you'll want a tool that's easy to use.

2. Check for mobile device compatibility

You'll likely do the majority of your data work on your computer. But there’s always the chance you need access from your phone, particularly if you’re traveling. Your business doesn't stop, and having a data visualization tool with mobile device compatibility is a lifesaver in these moments. If possible, find a tool that's compatible with Android and iOS.

3. Review available data inputs and outputs

Most modern data visualization tools can handle just about anything you throw at them, but it doesn't hurt to double-check. If you have an employee with technical prowess, ask them what data types and inputs you need. 

You might be fine with a tool that uses web URLs to pull data, syncs with Google Analytics, and takes CSV files from Excel. But there's also the chance you need something with HTML5 or Javascript functionality.

You'll also want to ask yourself what kinds of outputs are important. You'll likely do the majority of your viewing within the tool, but it's nice to have a tool that can also create PDF files for printing and presentations.

4. Find a tool with expandability

Plugins can expand a data visualization tool’s abilities beyond their original limits. Open-source data visualization tools can be especially powerful, as their open-source nature generally translates to a wealth of modifications (mods) and plugins. Many open-source tools also feature a free version or are free altogether. 

5. Consider these popular data visualization tools

There are many popular data visualization tools, each bringing something different to the table. Here are several options to consider:

  • Excel: Best known as a spreadsheet program, Excel can handle many data visualizations. There's a good chance Excel is already on your computer. If you have it and only need basic data visualizations like charts or graphs, it's worth exploring.
  • Google Analytics: This free tool allows you to track your site performance, including traffic, time on page, and bounce rate. Analytics includes many data visualization tools that allow you to turn your traffic, conversions, and visitor demographics into bar charts, pie charts, and more.
  • Google Charts: This is another free tool from Google that enables you to turn any data set into a visual chart. Google Charts requires a bit more manual entry than Analytics, but it also allows you to enter outside data, much like Excel. If you're not already committed to the Microsoft suite, Google Charts is a great first stop.
  • LucidChart: LucidChart is a collaborative whiteboard tool that empowers users with data visualizations and easy sharing of ideas and files. If you need a visualization tool and have a distributed or remote team, LucidChart is excellent for collaborating in real time.
  • Zoho: Zoho is a large cloud-computer suite that includes a number of tools, including data visualization. You can import many file types into Zoho’s system to turn them into data visualizations. There are also options for email management, people management, and other facets of business.
  • Tableau: Tableau is a one-stop-shop for data visualization, priding itself on government-grade security and an intuitive user interface. It features a wide breadth of training material, making it an especially good fit for companies that are less tech-savvy, or wary of learning new tools. If you want a free option, Tableau Public is also available.
  • Sisense: This data visualization tool offers several builder options, allowing you to create entire APIs that sync with your data visualizations. This might be a bit much for companies just starting out. But if you're tech-savvy and looking to future-proof your company, Sisense is worth investigating.
  • Datawrapper: This tool takes a different approach to data visualization, giving you the ability to create charts, graphs, and data maps. It’s especially useful if you have customers spread throughout the country or around the world.
  • SAP Lumira: This self-service data visualization tool provides real-time updates in data visualization formats, which can be particularly helpful for companies that need on-the-go information. For example, those with fast-paced retail climates could greatly benefit from up-to-the-minute updates.
  • FusionCharts: FusionCharts is a data visualization tool that's all about dashboards. You can create customizable dashboards for quick access to data visualizations that matter most. This information can include proprietary data, stock market data, and anything else you can pull from the internet.
  • Salesforce: This customer relationship management (CRM) tool contains basic data visualizations like charts and graphs. If you have (or plan to have) a variety of customers with a complex sales funnel, Salesforce can be a great option.
  • Domo: Domo is a streamlined data visualization tool that syncs with your company's systems to give you real-time updates on performance. It also enables you to make visualizations for additional information, making it a fairly versatile tool.
  • Highcharts: This technical tool is aimed at developers, giving them an easier way to create interactive charts and graphs for websites. Highcharts can be used for tracking stocks and internal data. You can also deploy it on mobile apps and utilize a number of programming languages. It's a more technical platform, so those without any experience should probably keep shopping around.
  • Infogram: If you need reports and infographics, Infogram has you covered. This easy-to-use tool enables virtually any users to create infographics, interactive charts, and maps. For those needing a quick data visualization option with a nice variety of visuals, this is worth a look.
  • Plotly: Plotly is another developer-heavy tool, like Highcharts. This tool uses Python, Julia code, or R languages to build dashboards with data visualizations. While Plotly requires developer knowledge to function, it does contain a large library of visualization templates you can download and use.
  • Microsoft Power Bi: Microsoft's analytics tool includes visualizations and in-depth business insights. Power Bi is powerful, but also technical and ideal for large companies looking to scale.

The above list is large but still not exhaustive. There are always new visualization tools on the horizon, so do some additional digging to make sure you leave no stone unturned.

A clear view of the future

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Data visualization tools aren't a must for every business. But they can give you a significant advantage over the competition and allow for quicker, more informed decision making. If you're a bootstrapped company and can’t afford the expense, don't overlook free options like Google Analytics or Google Charts.

Your competitors may or may not use data visualization to keep tabs on their business. Either way, using data visualization tools can help you stay one step ahead. Business intelligence is essential for every business. While you can get by without tools, having them will make your life much easier. 

With data visualization, you take that intelligence to the next level and make it accessible — and easily digestible — for everyone in your company. It doesn't take a Magic 8-Ball to see that's a wise, informed, and clear choice.

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