I made another reading infographic... and it wasn't for me!
Many of my friends are avid readers (which is probably why they're my friends). When word got around that I was collecting data on my reading they could have laughed. Instead, they celebrated my nerdiness. When I started turning that data into an annual infographic (here and here), they had more opportunity to tease. And, again, they cheered me on. Some have even risen to the challenge by pitching book titles to me so they can be featured in future documents under "recommended by."
Well, a few weeks ago a friend and colleague, Kaylan, from the Museum of Science, Boston reached out - she wanted an infographic of her own! I was pretty excited to take her up on this offer. First, because she was using an adapted version of my own reading tracking template. I was curious to see where she took it! Second, because Kaylan and I have semi-similar literary interests and I wanted to pick her 2017 reading list for ideas. And, third, because I had just gone on a bender watching Ann Emery's Excel tutorials and was itching to trying making something visual in the platform. My typical web-based visualization go-tos were starting to become cumbersome... this seemed like a fantastic way to merge some professional development into a fun favor for a friend!
getting familiar with the data
The process itself was pretty simple. Kaylan emailed me her tracking document. She opted to use many of the same categories that I do: Publication Year, Start/End Dates, Gender, Length in Hours or Pages, Genre, ect. She also has a few interesting modifications: separating out race from nationality, a more nuanced formatting list, and a specific indicator for dystopian literature. After reviewing the data landscape I set to work running some numbers. This is the fun part for me - it's not just about what is on the surface ("Kaylan read 69 books"), it's about where I can probe to find something interesting across the numbers (e.g., "She read 41% of all books listed between January to March"). Because I knew I would be visualizing all of this in Excel I tried to prioritize quantitative findings that would translate well. After getting a sense of what story I could tell I pitched my ideas to Kaylan. She was on board. I got to work!
setting some ground rules for moving forward
Challenges Doing Visualizations Purely in Sheets
Working exclusively within Excel sheets and cells was a fun and limiting. Here are some things I learned along the way...
- Narrowing columns into tiny boxes (i.e., waffle charts) and coloring them in is a super fun way to show distribution or quantities, but... it can pose a logistical nightmare for doing anything unrelated in the cells below.
- Keep your text super simple. If you have a longer statement you need to think about layout. Sometimes it makes sense to have a taller cell and wrap it. Other times it's better to split text across two shorter cells.
- Boarders are a cool way to create zones. However, when you save a sheet to PDF they may come out in different degrees of thickness... even if you used the exact same line thickness across cells. If this annoys you, proceed with caution.
Once I had some numbers in mind I had to start organizing and prioritizing to ensure all findings could fit on an 8.5 x 11 sheet. It felt important to produce something standard in size in case she wanted to print it. With these parameters in place I added a few more limitations. They both helped create a visual "style guide" of sorts and ensure I was challenging myself technically:
- Using charts to visualize data would not be allowed. All graphs had to be the result of colored cells or conditional formatting. Use of icons or images was allowed.
- For a thematic area (e.g., "gender") to be included on the infographic I needed to have at least three interesting data points for discussion.
- Keep it high-level and keep it simple. No more than eight blocks or zones on the page.
Having these guidelines in place helped me quickly identify the more salient findings from the data. I'd like to think they also helped me pull out some patterns in reading behavior that were surprising or thought provoking for Kaylan - I know analyzing my own data always does that!
voila! An infographic is Made
As fun as it is to create something like this for a friend it is also a little nerve-wrecking. Eventually things came together enough where I showed her the direction I was heading in and asked for feedback. I wanted her to feel comfortable pushing back on the kinds of data being reported or the way things were looking. This is always a critical phase in any project - especially those related to actual organizational work.
In giving Kaylan a sneak peak I learned that she was really interested in stats related to audiobook usage. Almost all her reading (78%) utilized that format. She spent a lot of timing commuting for work and wanted to acknowledge the opportunity that afforded her to consume more books. She also loves dystopian literature. That was something she wanted to be sure I included in some capacity. So, I went back to work. I ran new numbers, scaled back or consolidated on others. One truly fun finding came from this revision. Initially I listed everything single publication year along with number of books per year. To me it looked like a cool timeline and bar graph (using conditional formatting). This wasn't as interesting or relevant to her, so I consolidated what initially took up about 28 rows into three: one per century. While cutting down the data this way I was forced to consider if it was worth keeping at all. In this act I noticed something interesting about what Kaylan read from the 1900s - she only read books from the last quarter of the century! Sure, this finding was there when all publication dates were listed, but less obvious when one is looking at the full spectrum. Narrowing down helped me to discover something, hopefully, of more value to her.
It took about 2-3 previews before we completed the infographic. We found ways to highlight quantitative findings, celebrating personal achievements, and even made space to include Kaylan's top three favorite books from 2017. Tracking and reporting on reading has become a great way for me to explore books with other readers, and getting to make an infographic for someone else was a neat extension of that.