Here’s how to make them more effective.

Diagrams come in many different flavors – mind maps, concept maps, flow charts, and so on – but at the core, they are all visualizations of how themes relate to one another.

As ubiquitous as diagrams are, they have some significant shortcomings.

Diagrams tend to be most useful as a mental organizing activity for the people who make the diagram. Outsiders coming in fresh have a much harder time seeing how the elements of the diagram fit together and make sense. I think that is generally because diagrams lack enough narrative to explain what is going on. We often use diagrams without explaining them. Or, more precisely, we use diagrams without connecting the diagram pieces to their associated parts of our narrative.

We learned this lesson the hard way. We had made a diagram illustrating how a new initiative was set up and what short, medium, and long-term outcomes the initiative was expected to produce. We showed the diagram to the top exec in a planned meeting to pitch my potential involvement in the project. We had to slowly walk him through the diagram, even though it made complete sense to me. When we finished, he said, “This is nice but what interests me is what happens in the arrows between the boxes in this diagram.” Dang. What a good point.

If done the right way, they can take a complex process, flow, or concept and visually tell the story in a way that just cannot be done with words alone.

Let’s say we are working with a team to develop some standards of practice around a goal. If put into words alone, here is how it looks:

Through a collaborative process our team and leadership have developed 3 core standards: safety, leadership, innovation, and teamwork.  Under the teamwork standard, there are some goal areas that are broad ways we can work tougher to measure teamwork.  The first is collaboration. Collaboration is central to working together so there are 3 new initiatives being launched that help promote collaboration.  Each initiative is intentionally scaffolded to work towards building a collaborative culture. We have contracted with a consultant to host a series of quarterly work group sessions to implement the initiatives. The second goal area is diversity. Diversity in staff identity, culture, background, and experience can build a strong team.  To support our diversity goal, we need to first get a better grasp on the current state of diversity in our workplace. Therefore, we are starting an internal research committee to examine opportunities for growth in diversity within our team.

Ok we are going to stop. We only got to explain two goal areas under one of the three core standards in just over 250 words. Whew.  You can imagine if we kept going, we would write an entire brief on this. Imagine a 5-page brief explaining all the core standards, accompanying goal areas, and all the measures connected to the goals. At the end of the brief, we doubt anyone will remember all the particular goal areas linked to each standard.  To review, you would need to carefully read through the text. This is a great example of when a diagram will come in handy.  

Often times, a diagram cannot necessarily replace all the text explaining the complexity of the data, but it helps condense all that complex language into something bite-sized that people can visually link up to the words. The trick is making sure you help the reader link the diagram to the explanatory words. Let’s walk through an example.

We mentioned how diagrams are often misused because they are built in such a way that doesn’t help support the information being presented.

This may not be the worst diagram in the world, but it is not great. Let’s talk about what isn’t working.  First of all, the color and font are Microsoft default colors. We should never use the defaults because we’re not boring default people and neither are our ideas. Why does every shape have a border, fill, and shadow? The measure boxes look misaligned and all the lines make it feels cluttered. Let’s juxtapose this with a better formatted diagram, with the same information being visualized.

This example engages us in the information in new ways. The intentional use of icons and colors helps readers make sense of how the parts of the diagram are related and better aligns the goal and measures with the corresponding standard. The measure box designs make it so much easier to see the overlap between the goals.

There is just a touch of some simple design that make this come to life a bit more. Do not be intimidated by this!  If you know how to insert a shape and textbox in PowerPoint, you have all the skills you need to make a nice diagram. A diagram is just a bunch of lines, circles, rectangles, and icons that are *very well aligned.*

Aside from the step of cleaning up the diagram, what makes it useful to others who were not involved in making it is to repeat sections from the diagram in the margins of corresponding sections throughout the report. This step visually connects the diagram to the explanatory text, helping the reader see the big picture. Afterwards, they are much more likely to see the original diagram as a helpful tool.

With some quick fixes, the diagrams you build to visually support your qualitative text and concepts will be better than ever by moving away from Microsoft defaults and adding in intentional color, icons, alignment, and narrative.

For dozens more ideas on visualizing qualitative data, check out chapter 8 in Effective Data Visualization.