Stuff about Data, Tableau and Visualisation
Becoming Data-Driven through UX – The Power of Empathy

Becoming Data-Driven through UX – The Power of Empathy

This is a summary of my presentation at TC23 of the same title, while it was prepared for a Tableau event, it is entirely tool independent; in fact all aspects of it apply similarly to any other solutions you would want to design, websites, apps, products, etc. Below you’ll find a written summary of the main points of my talk, the slides in PDF format and the canvas I created to help with UX driven experience. If you have any questions, would like to discuss anything about UX in data visualisation or just give feedback, you can reach out to me on LinkedIn or Twitter.



If you read articles online and listen to interviews, a take away is often that organisations around the globe struggle to be data-driven. If you believe the large analytics vendors, that is often a problem that can be solved by tools – to be fair, there are slight shifts towards data/analytics culture and more education but as these companies usually earn their money through licenses, this is often the main focus.

Reality is that the reason for not being data-driven is rarely exclusively the lack of tools. I’d even argue you could be perfectly well data driven without any of these tools. It’s certainly harder, but not impossible. Reality is that if you adopt these tools, you throw dashboards, reports or whatever else they are called at problems until you need to create dashboards to manage your dashboards (yes, I have seen that!), and you end up with a new platform full of data but only few working solutions.

I believe the reason for this is that organisations do not understand the value of User Experience!

What is UX?

This is the point where – if you are a UX professional – you probably already wait for me to dig my own grave. Reality is that, at least “UX Influencers” argue about what UX really is and how it relates to other disciplines. So you end up with articles who claim the exact opposite of each other. I am not a UX professional by trade, so I don’t even claim to have the correct answer here. My aim is to give you a good enough explanation of UX so that you can start using some of the techniques and research more if you want to.

The most important part to understand is that User Experience Design and User Interface Design are two distinct, but related, disciplines. Professionals argue how they relate to each other but I like the explanation below the best, because it doesn’t pitch them against each other but defines them as two sides of the same coin.

UX is what a user feels while using a product or service (satisfaction, surprise, anger, frustration). UI is how a user interacts with it.

User Experience design informs how the interface should look like and how it should behave, while User Interface design drives the experience.

In terms of data visualisation, here are two good examples:

  • Sam Pearson created this visualisation of the Marvel movies. It is a very unique way of showing the data and the first reaction is usually one of confusion. If you are interested in the topic though and start looking into it, you will realise that you are dragged into the dashboard and whenever you have a question about it, the answer is right there. Step by step you understand more about it and get more intrigued what the other elements mean. At the end you clearly understand the chart and got “enlightened” with regards to the dashboard. This was an experience of creating confusion and subsequently educating the user to get this “Ah!” moment.
  • Kimly Scott created the second one where she talks about her journey from being born in Cambodia to living in Australia and how this has impacted her life. She talks about her likely hood of being illiterate in a low paying job if she had stayed there. The way she did this was not through somber charts on a dashboard but through storytelling and visuals that evoke emotions. You suddenly realise that this is a very personal story and feel quite attached to it.

Both examples create emotions and a literal experience and while this degree of involvement is usually not what we aim for in business dashboards, it does illustrate what User Experience is.

Having one without the other is a common occurrence. Many websites have a great UI with bad UX. It is so easy to setup good looking websites these days, that anybody can do it but few people worry about the experience. This leads to dead links, missing content, inconsistent navigation or sign in forms that tell you that your password is invalid but give no indication which of their policies you didn’t obey.

On the other hand, User Experience without a good user interface is very common but often a less severe problem. Many games fall in this category. If you think about escape rooms or puzzles, they are purposefully obscure to challenge you. Games like Dwarf Fortress became famous for their complexity in terms of game play and its user interface. Niche websites and apps can be horribly designed but if they serve a very particular function that you cannot get anywhere else, we put up with it. And lastly literal experiences like sports games, where it is much easier to watch it at home with different angles better zoom, etc. but the experience is just not comparable to standing in a stadium with thousands of others.

Why is UX important?

If you think about design in general, there is this paradox, where it is much harder to design something well than it is to do it badly, at the same time people tend to only remember the badly designed things.

Everybody will remember a time when they struggled to open a door because it wasn’t clear whether they should push or pull. Nobody ever thought “This door was exceptionally easy to open”! These doors are fully functional and work exactly as required, however nobody bothered to consider how somebody would use it and if there was any improvements that could be made.

A positive example on the other hand are many new uni campuses around the world. They didn’t put in pathways from the beginning, instead they waited a semester or two to see where students would walk and then design the pathways based on this. They “listened” to their users and delivered exactly what they needed. With this solution, you can expect it to be highly adopted and it’s unlikely for any ugly shortcuts through the gras to appear any time soon.

How do you apply UX to become data-driven?

For me, data-driven means that you are delivered something that is based on data and you can take action from it.

NOT actionable

  • A list of all purchases of a customer (or most other reports for that matter) is usually not actionable because there is no insight. You’d need to filter or aggregate to find anything interesting to act upon
  • KPI Dashboards are rarely directly actionable. If you sales are down quarter on quarter, you can tell your sales people to sell more but there is no direct action that would influence the KPI directly


  • The current spend compared with expected customer spend is actionable, as I can get in touch with my customer to see if anything changed and if they are interested in other products
  • A prioritised list of opportunities by likelihood to close is also actionable as it shows me the most important items first, so I know with what task I can get the most value.

All these use cases could be addressed by somebody exporting data, sending it through the company for everybody to filter it to the relevant data, or it is just there, when a user needs it, where a user needs it!

That is user experience and the one thing that us usually missing is:


In the context of User Experience, empathy does not mean you feel bad for somebody. It means you genuinely understand what drives them. What they need to achieve and what the intention is of anything they are doing. If that is applied throughout the whole process from requirement definition to deployment, the solutions end up much more valuable than otherwise.

Requirement Definition

To help with this, I have created this canvas to help ask the most important questions to make sure that the user experience is kept in mind. This is a guidance based on what I found works and you might need to adjust some of the questions depending on your situation. Especially in the beginning, I’d recommend to have a version of it with you and make notes based on user feedback. This will then be a document that you can always refer back to if there are questions around if/how something should be done.


During development it is important to keep User Experience principles in mind. Some of them overlap with visual design principles, but others are separate. I recommend starting with this list from the UX Design Institute, focusing particularly on Context, User Control and Accessibility


While every solution should get through any standard test process you have, it is important to make sure that we don’t only test for functionality but also for usability. Having functions available is great but is a user able to use them easily? Do they understand how to use them? Do they need to adjust things over and over again to make them work for them?

If possible, try to test in a production situation. A call center agent is likely to interact with your solution differently if they have an angry customer on the line than if they sit in a meeting room with you!


Lastly, empathy during deployment starts with proper change management. Explain to all of the users why there is a new solution, what it does and how it provides value to them. Make sure they are on board and there is a defined process for the roll out as well as for feedback and to report bugs, especially in the first few days; if you check in with them regularly, problems can be addressed early on and don’t pile up until later.

Also consider reviewing the solution after 3-6 months to make sure that it is still useful. Many dashboard components and even entire dashboards end up not being used because it turned out that there is a quicker way to do things or because the insights were actually not as important as expected.


Good UX requires empathy and – applied properly – can make you data-driven much quicker than not considering UX at all.

Focusing on empathy can be applied to any existing development process, without any larger investment. On the simplest level it is adjusting the questions that are asked and considering a wider solution space. There is no new technology needed and existing employees can apply these techniques. It is beneficial to have management supporting this, mainly because it might require more or longer interviews and it is crucial to talk to the actual end users. The business might object in order to not “waste” employees time but sitting in interviews rather than earning money, however this is usually compensated with the time that is saved through a well designed solution. Having somebody higher up who can articulate this, can be very helpful. Lastly, it is beneficial to have cross functional team members who can take part in all activities of the development process. Having one person build empathy and another one developing, can work, however it is much more likely to introduce additional misunderstandings.

Below you’ll find the canvas and a PDF of my slide deck. As soon as I have a recording of this talk, it will be added here as well.


  1. Qin Zhang (Vicky)

    Hi Alex,

    Thank you so much for your fascinating lecture yesterday at UoA. I have a lot of interest in Data Visualisation. I have followed your linkedIn and will keep an eye on your blog updates.


  2. Pingback: You paid how much to go to a tech conference? - Curvediscussion

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