Google Consumer Barometer Promises Insight Through Visualization
The Consumer Barometer is a beautiful and immersive visualization presented by Google and produced by CLEVER°FRANKE. Experience it for yourself.
The three main sections of the barometer (browse, graph, and data map) are all variations on a theme of visualizing the wealth of data collected by Google and others about how consumers research and make purchases. “Browse” guides you through a selected set of stories that have been pulled from the data. “Graph” lets you selectively compare and contrast all the metrics collected in the barometer. “Data Map” gives you a sense of the organizational structure of these metrics.
The Consumer Barometer does a lot of things right. The interactions are helpful and plentiful and the whole thing is visually engaging. What’s more, it is clear that restraint and careful visual reduction have been applied to the entire visualization. You’re never overwhelmed with options or controls. What it comes down to is a very well defined information architecture.
Let’s dive into Browse, probably the most complex section of the tool. The four “stories” you’re presented with are top level trends that the collective team has identified and designed specifically for. Within each story you have the ability to select a region (bubble) and/or industry (hexagon) to see more relevant data. The interactions on these elements are so responsive and entertaining that it’s not immediately clear that you can click on these to explore the data further.
As you browse, I think the strangest thing about this section is the lack of consistency between the “stories” as illustrated by the image at right.
No two have the same flow through the different types of visualizations and not all lead to an “insight” screen in the end. It makes navigation more confusing and the metaphor weaker. I’m sure these choices were dictated by the available data but there’s no obvious reason why ”compare purchase behaviors across countries” can’t start with a country selector like the other three stories.
The other issue here is the navigational labeling. CLEVER°FRANKE and the team have done so much work to make everything semantically correct and readable (“People who are [age range] with [income] purchase [online only]“) but I still have to hover to see this information in most cases. This becomes important when you consider the ability to socially share any page of this visualization with a direct link. Someone landing on a page deep in the tool will have no immediate indicator that says “you’re looking at a visualization for technology purchases in Ireland.” They see the selected story and generic breadcrumbs in the upper left but there’s no true “title for what you’re seeing.” The breadcrumbs could get you half way there if they updated with your selection of country and industry. Those breadcrumbs are pretty important too considering the browser’s back button doesn’t really work within the tool.
The different types of visualization within these screens are designed quite nicely. I find myself drawn more toward the hexagons despite there being no clear reason to stray from the simple circles (except, perhaps, to avoid the bubble plague). I think this attraction is due to the fact that the hexagons display more data more immediately and are therefore more useful to me. I can scan them quickly and see relative values of areas I might want to explore. In the bubble cartogram these values are hidden in the hover state and the filled circle areas are harder to compare.
On of my favorite bits is the care taken in the final “insight” screens. Firstly, the tool automatically compares your selected country to another relevant one and lets you adjust or remove the comparison. What’s more, every element in this screen is interactive in a simple way. Hovers tie the sections of visualization to their labels, making scanning and comprehension even faster. Hovering in one area highlights another element and you’re forced to draw connections between them. These details make the difference in explaining the radar bubble charts which would otherwise fall apart.
This section is a little more straightforward and uses a novel navigational construct to show the relationship between the different ideas visualized by the Consumer Barometer. It also serves as an link to the Graph section, allowing you to explore and select the metrics you want to compare.
The graphing section is built much more for the self directed user who wants to query specific sections of the data collected. This robust yet simple graphing tool lays out all your possible options and combinations and delivers them in straightforward bar graphs that can be downloaded and shared.
CLEVER°FRANKE and the team have certainly raised the bar with this comprehensive visualization that does a great job of communicating the complex.They mention on their project page that:
“The sphere consists of three different environments for users to explore the immense data set, each environment build specifically for different target audience groups.”
Yet I can’t help feeling that these three separate sections are all parts of a whole that longs to be unified into a more powerful visualization. Is it too much to expect a single visualization to guide users through stories, show them the structure of the data and allow them to make their own specific queries and explorations? Has the complex research in the Consumer Barometer been simplified too much? Does the tool give its users enough credit in the level of sophistication it presents them with? The Why Axis and CLEVER°FRANKE would love to hear your answers in the comments.