#039 - The power of visualising your point
Welcome to Issue #039 of The Forcing Function - your guide to delivering the right outcomes for your projects and your users.
🤔 Made me think: Bad Map Projection By Time Zones.
👨💻 Worth checking out: A typical day in UK airspace.
If you can’t diagram it well, then do you understand it well enough?
My friends didn’t appreciate how short-sighted I am until they tried wearing my glasses and their vision became so blurry that they had to take them off.
With one of my eyes being more than -10 dioptres and the other one not far behind, I’m classified as having complex vision. If I’m reading a letter without my glasses, it literally has to be less than 10 cm away from eyes for it to be legible. On the slight upside, I do get free eye tests and a small credit towards new glasses.
My theory is that because I’m so short sighted, I value the power of visual communication so much.
It probably underpins why I took up travel photography and enjoy making photos. Why I’ve never been able to get into podcasts or audiobooks as I prefer watching / reading. And why, in my work as a business analyst (BA), I give equal weight to the substance of what I product as well as how it’s presented.
For example, if I don’t present a process map well then I feel that I might as well have not bothered doing it in the first place. And that also applies to what I receive. If it’s not well presented to me, I question if enough attention has been paid to the substance.
The lack of good visualisation, clear layout, and clean design are just some of the details I use as leading indicators for larger issues - as I discussed in my previous issue (#038 - How the inconsequential can be unexpectedly impactful).
Getting out of chaos using colour
When I talk about the power of visual communication, I don’t mean you have to produce fancy infographics or over-stylised PowerPoint decks. It’s more about tailoring what you output, as a business analyst, to your audience to make it as easily digestible for them. The less heavy lifting they have to do, the easier you’ll be able to land your message with them.
Sometimes, that can be simply be about making a small visual change that makes your audiences’ lives better.
Years ago, working as a lead BA on a massive financial services programme with multiple vendors was enough of a challenge. And as that programme was delivering regulatory change even though the regulation hadn’t yet been finalised, that just amplified the level of difficulty. Without knowing what final requirements were going to be until very late into the delivery was never going to play nice with any delivery methodology.
So, at one point, the vendor for the software development was working to one version of the rules, whilst the vendor for the database design was working to another version, and I was working on the next version of the rules. Which left the unfortunate vendor for software testing confused about which version their tests should be checking against. It was chaotic to say the least and unsustainable.
To instil some order into this chaos, I introduced colour-coding into my BA artefacts to help each vendor team easily understand:
What was being specified, built, tested for a given iteration.
What had changed between iterations and why.
Even though that meant more work for me, especially having to retrospectively apply the colour-coding for all the in-flight work, that one change did help all the teams get better aligned. It wasn’t perfect but having some visual cues was better than having nothing. Thankfully, we delivered what was needed across the various iterations before I ran out of key colours.
Parallels between writing and diagramming
Just as writing this newsletter has improved my understanding of core business analysis concepts, so has the act of drawing out the visuals I’ve used in several issues to better illustrate my point.
By committing my proverbial pen to paper in my writing and in my diagramming, they both:
Reveal the limits of my understanding .
For example, when I’m sketching out a process map which I think that I’ve got well defined - only to discover all the gaps that I didn’t realise were missing when I started.
Improve and clarify what I’m producing through all the iterations and drafts I go through from different perspectives and alternative approaches.
Remind me to tailor my message to my audience.
For example, when I was recently drawing out a new business process, I provided a high-level summary view for the senior executives as well as a detailed view for the end-users to understand the various steps involved.
Then, by adding clickable links in the process map, both of these audiences could drill down into the nitty-gritty or zoom back out to see the wider context. That was the visual interactive element that helped them understand what I was proposing and allowed them to provide targeted feedback.
Mulling a complex problem in your head is useful but is constrained as your brain has finite capacity. By offloading your thoughts and ideas to a piece of paper or a digital canvas, it augments your ability to work through them. And, by looking at the visual angle, it gives you both a different perspective to the problem and a powerful way to either explain it or your solution for it.
“My pencil and I are more clever than I.”
Albert Einstein | Theoretical physicist
A few tips on creating effective visuals
A couple of pointers that have helped me over the years.
Keep it simple.
It’s easy to overcomplicate and over-design your visual as that can be a tempting cover for not understanding well enough what you're diagramming. You’re far better off stopping to address your knowledge gaps than avoiding them.
The simpler the visual, the easier it should be for your audience to understand. And them understanding your message is more important than you showing off your design skills or overloading them with how much you know.
Don’t reinvent the wheel.
The artefact that you’re working on has, most likely, been done countless times before. So judiciously use an image search to get inspired by what others have done and look to understand why they’ve chosen one type of diagram over another.
Think laterally for how other professions and other disciplines have tackled what you’re looking to visualise. For example, check out how The Economist visualises its story of how “Hollywood is losing the battle for China”.
Test with friendlies.
At one level, simply talking through your draft visual with someone who doesn’t have any idea about it is still beneficial. Because each time you stumble or get confused highlights what you still need to refine.
And if the person you’re testing the visual with knows the context and the topic, then see how far they can get without you explaining anything. Again, that will show where the points of confusion are with the design, the labelling, or something else.
Finally, as with most aspects of being a better BA, getting better with this comes with practice and with experience. If you haven’t started already, then now is the best time to start getting both.
🤔 Made me think
Bad Map Projection: Time Zones
One of the most difficult things to visualise accurately is the world map. There's been many attempts to find the least bad way to represent a 3D sphere in 2D. I tend to use the Miller projection over the much-maligned Mercator projection which exaggerates the size of objects the further away from the equator that they are.
This attempt by XKCD, part of his Bad Map Projections series, made me laugh for its novelty.
Making zero effort to be practical or useful, it attempts to show countries based on where they should be on the time zone they purport to be in. Even though, in reality, each country could technically span more than one physical time zone based on where the Sun shines on the Earth. So, China is squashed into UTC+8 as the entire country uses the same time zone and Greenland is stretched out as the towns of Danmarkshavn and Ittoqqortoormiit use different time zones to the rest of the island!
It’s a fun reminder that if you can’t be precise, then at least be accurate. And if you can’t be either, then at least have the visual tell a good story that lands your point.
🧑💻Worth checking out
📺 A typical day in UK airspace | National Air Traffic Services (NATS)
In another life, if I wasn’t so sight-sighted, I would’ve pursued a career as a commercial airline pilot.
Instead, I get to enjoy flying as a passenger and one of my favourite places to be in is 36,000 feet in the air, above the clouds, and bathed in the clear blue sky.
This visualisation for NATS, which provides air traffic control for the UK, shows just how much goes on around you whilst you’re in the air. And, beyond those commercial flights, who is else is using the same airspace. From helicopters servicing the North Sea oil rigs, the areas set aside for military fast jet training, and general aviation (private recreational flights).
Of course, you could describe in words what NATS does but would it be as succinct, as powerful, or as easily understood as their 3-minute video?
🖖Until next Thursday ...
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For now, thank you so much for reading this week's issue of The Forcing Function and I hope that you have a great day.
PS: Thanks to P for reading drafts for me.