Infographics, The Next Wave of Differentiation?

Snow_Cholera_SmallCommunication is a big part of being a Product Manager, whether you’re attempting to convey the significance of a business pain, the impact of a value proposition, the creative nature of a solution, or the accessibility of information created by a product. In this regard, infographics can be a big help.

As defined by Wikipedia, Information graphics or infographics are visual representations of information, data or knowledge. These graphics are used where complex information needs to be explained quickly and clearly, such as in signs, maps, journalism, technical writing, and education. They are also used extensively as tools by computer scientists, mathematicians, and statisticians to ease the process of developing and communicating conceptual information. Employing this vivid way of conveying information may just be the ticket you need to help differentiate yourself as a product manager and your products.

Chances are you’re already familiar with infographics from the pages of USA Today, Wired Magazine, and other popular media, but make no mistake, infographics are not a new phenomenon. John Snow, a British physician considered to be one of the fathers of epidemiology, was perhaps one of the first to gain insight from the use of infographics. In 1854, he successfully traced the source of a cholera outbreak in Soho, England to a public water pump on Broad Street. At the time, it was thought that cholera was caused by pollution or “bad air.” Skeptical of this theory, Snow plotted cholera cases on a map of the city and was then able to determine the true source of the outbreak and conclude that the disease is actually water borne.

More recently, Edward Tufte, an American statistician and Professor Emeritus of statistics, information design, interface design and political economy at Yale University, has championed visual communication of information. He has authored a number of influential books on the subject, starting with, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, published in 1983.

So while information graphics are not new, something interesting is happening. They are experiencing an increase in cultural awareness and use as indicated by Google Trends.

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Why is this?

The answer, I believe, is information overload. As more information and data is made available for consumption, individuals are looking for better ways to manage and process it. Infographics are a useful tool in this regard, especially in the case of business software and web applications. An effective use of infographics will make your product easier to learn and use while enabling your customers to make better decisions. They may also be a great opportunity to differentiate your solution from that of your competitors.

I’ve employed infographics in a few of the products that I’ve managed to this end. For starters, let’s take a relatively simple implementation – a utility that helps database administrators identify differences between databases. The comparison results fall into four categories:

  1. the database object (such as a table) only exists on the source
  2. the object only exists on the target
  3. the object exists in both environments and they are the same
  4. the objects are present in both databases, but they are different

These cases are identified using the four different icons shown in the upper left corner (and the results column) of the window.

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A more elaborate example comes from a performance monitoring product I managed that graphically renders the operational structure of a database (in this case, IBM DB2). Here, components of the database such as the number of users, memory allocation, processes and disk space are represented by various icons. They are then connected by flows to illustrate how rapidly data is moving through the system. Superimposed over the flows are line charts, so the user can see what’s going on right now and compare it to historical values.

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This display method works equally well for junior database administrators (as a learning tool) and seasoned database experts (as a rapid way to asses the overall system health).

Information graphics have also attracted the attention and investment of some influential technology leaders. Many Eyes is an IBM Research project and website whose stated goal is to democratize information and to enable social data analysis (“social” in the sense of Web 2.0), by making it easy for laypeople to create, edit, share and discuss each other’s information visualizations. Google is in on the fun too, as they acquired Gapminder.org’s Trendalyzer in 2007 and turned it into a Motion Chart Gadget for Google Spreadsheet.

Be sure to take advantage of this trend and give some thought to how infographics might improve the user experience of your products when updating your roadmaps. Including new ways to display and visualize data in your next release might be what you need to excite sales and prospects.

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