Trina Chiasson on infographics and the role of design in launching Infoactive
JS: Tell us a little about your background and how you got interested in data visualization. How did you arrive at your idea for Infoactive?
TC: I live at the intersection of visual media and technology. I like designing digital things, writing code, and organizing web projects. Before starting Infoactive, I coordinated nonprofit online media campaigns, both as an employee and a freelancer.
The nonprofits that I worked with had a lot of data about their social impact, but packaging that data for progress reports and other funding-related activities was always a challenge. I spent a lot of time trying to find an efficient process for working with constantly changing data streams in Excel and Adobe Illustrator. The problem was that most data tools weren’t built for design, and most design tools weren’t built for data. I hacked my own painful processes for turning data into nicely designed visualizations for branded reports, but I was always looking for a more efficient (and more web-friendly) solution.
Now I’m the co-founder/CEO of Infoactive, and a fellow at the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute. I have a small team of smart people working hard to turn our idea into a product that people love. As a Reynolds Fellow, I’m also doing research on how newsrooms use data visualizations, and how Infoactive can help newsrooms tell stories with data.
JS: What do you feel are the biggest challenges for creating infographics for news outlets?
TC: The hard thing about interactive infographics is that they require a combination of specialized skills. It’s hard to find a person who is a developer, designer, and a data analyst. Graphics teams have too much on their plates, and many newsrooms can’t afford to create the types of visualizations that they want in a time frame that makes sense. It’s also challenging for many newsrooms to quantify the value of producing visualizations. Thus, it’s often hard to justify the large time investment needed to make great infographics.
Through the research I’m doing with RJI, we hope to better understand the time and costs associated with producing visualizations in newsrooms. We’ll also study how visualizations influence reader engagement and begin to quantify the benefit of publishing infographics.
JS: What role does user-experience design play in shaping Infoactive?
TC: We’re all very passionate about UX, but I need to give major credit to our brilliant designer, Stefania Larzeni. She’s responsible for the interface that everyone loves. As a team, we work through user experience challenges on whiteboards, sketch design mockups, polish them in Illustrator, and then implement them in code. We do regular Skype screen shares with our customers, where we watch them use the application and learn about stumbling blocks in their user experience.
We still see a lot of room for improvement, and we have a lot of ideas about design changes that we can implement to make the application even easier to use. We take things one step at a time — test with customers, discover challenges, design new solutions, and test it again.
JS: What kind of user research was initially conducted and what types of professionals did you initially approach?
TC: When I started the project, I was a big fan of Steve Blank’s work. We used the Business Model Canvas to “get out of the building” and test hypotheses. We did hundreds of interviews in our discovery process with nonprofits, academics, scientists, journalists, hobbyist bloggers, business managers, designers, marketers, and many, many others.
I don’t think that the discovery process is ever really over — it just changes. The questions we had at the beginning were: Is this project even worth it? What are the problems? Who is our target market? How much is this solution worth?
Now the questions are: How can we optimize ROI for our customers? What new features are the most valuable and how do we measure that value before we build it? What pricing model will work best for different types of customers?
We have a different set of questions for each stage in our development and discovery process.
JS: How many design iterations have occurred?
TC: The application has certainly evolved over time. One of these days, I’d like to pull down the original prototype of Infoactive that we built in our first month of work, because it’s hilarious. We’ve come a long way since then, and it’s hard to place an exact count on our design iterations. It’s more of a constantly shifting flow of changes than a series of redesigns. We push new changes to our production servers on a regular basis — sometimes several times per week.
TC: There are a number of awesome data visualization tools and code libraries, and I’m delighted that there’s such a large community of people working to make data visualization easier and more accessible. We all take different approaches and meet different needs. Our focus at Infoactive is on design and storytelling, with a platform that’s geared toward a less-technical audience (i.e. those who are not professional developers or data analysts).
JS: How is user feedback incorporated into Infoactive?
TC: User feedback is really important to us — in fact, most of our development work is centered around it. We’re constantly asking for feedback, responding to support tickets, and logging trends in feature requests. We also do regular Skype screen shares to identify places where we could improve the user experience. We’re fortunate to have an incredibly dedicated group of early beta testers who devote a lot of time and effort into testing new features and helping us improve the application. The level of community support inspires and amazes me, every day.
JS: What’s on the horizon in terms of functionality for Infoactive?
TC: We have a lot of exciting projects in the works. We recently surveyed our community to ask what type of functionality they’d like to see next. At the top of the list is an API, interaction analytics, icons, more design customization options, and support for larger datasets. Advanced data security is another popular request. We’ve also announced a series of stretch goals for our current Kickstarter campaign.
JS: What impact does research have on shaping future iterations of your product?
TC: As a fellow at the Reynolds Journalism Institute, I’m researching how newsrooms create and publish data visualizations. I’m particularly interested in whether or not the common skill sets in newsrooms are well-matched to the available tools for creating visualizations, how newsrooms are optimizing infographics for mobile devices, and how we can make the entire process more efficient. I’m also studying reader responses to published infographics, including share rates and other engagement metrics for different categories of visualizations. The ultimate goal is to make it easier for newsrooms to publish highly engaging data graphics that their readers love.
JS: You recently launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for Infoactive, and far exceeded your goal; how will the additional funds shape the product?
TC: There’s so much more to do! We’ve announced a series of stretch goals, and we’re incredibly thankful for all of the support that has been pouring into this project. The funding supports our small team and makes it possible for us to dedicate our full-time attention to Infoactive. Additional funding will allow us to build out a beta API, add more visualization types and customization options, and improve our ability to work with different types of datasets. $12,000 is the minimum that we need to reach our public beta in March, but we’re thrilled by all of the additional support that we have for this project.