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Are You Using Word Clouds and Other Useful Visuals?

How good are we at bringing our data to life? Data dumping is still alarmingly prevalent. Sometimes it seems to me that we are so focussed on engaging respondents with new playful techniques that we forget that our internal clients also need engaging.


By Edward Appleton

I had a bit of an eye-opening experience recently – with Word Clouds.

A colleague of mine in Marketing had included some Research slides in a NPD presentation she was giving to management. The Research part included some Word Clouds charts to present open-ended responses.

To to my amazement, the Word Clouds were a hit with the audience, apparently. Folk loved it.

Simply by changing the format from a grid of coded open enders with nets and other mentions to a visualisation of data had really fired the imagination of quite a few in marketing. Duh?

The weird but totally wonderful thing is that creating a simple Word Cloud is relatively easy and open to pretty much anyone. Take – –  no registration necessary, it’s easy, you can play around with colours and fonts and it’s free. Plenty of the examples look stunning.

Beyond WordClouds, it seems there’s plenty afoot in the area of infographics – – caught my attention, it’s in the process of allowing everyone to quickly and easily create professional designs with their own data sets.

Could we researchers learn something from this? Are we underutilising the power of data visualisation? Here’s my take.

1. Visualising data invariably helps an information-heavy presentation. Data that otherwise might seem daunting is suddenly appealing to the eye.

2. Data visualisation – including Word Clouds –  when done well can help position a market research study as contemporary, cool. Frippery maybe, but so what – packaging works.

Reserach as an industry has, in my view, a positioning challenge – we’re still the dowdy analytical boffins in the eyes of many. This simple trick helps reposition ourselves.

3. Often we overcomplicate things in research. Wordclouds are simple, easy both to understand and explain (bigger = more important).- and often that makes them more memorable and actually makes the data more easily digested.

4. Care needs to be taken in Word Clouds with phrases, paraphrases or words that are so similar as to be identical in a coding exercise but wouldn’t be seen as such by a machine. It shouldn’t be a substitute for reading as many verbatims as you can fit in.

5. We need to learn to shift modes throughout a research project. The time for detail, precision, rigour is all fine for survey design, choice of methodology, sampling, questionnaire design – and also for the analysis phase of thinking through what the data means, what story it is telling us.

But when it comes to presenting, we need to think as communicators and analysts. And dare I say it, learn to perform, project.

I think there are serious pressures on both supplier and client side that work against crafting a careful, visually compelling final narrative and presentation – cost and deadlines for example. But going the extra visual yard (enjoyed avoiding a reference to a mile there….;) is actually extremely valuable, as it’s often the only part of the iceberg that internal clients and other influencing stakeholders see.

How good are we at bringing our data to life? I see many causes for optimism in my daily work, but data dumping is still alarmingly prevalent. Sometimes it seems to me that we are so focussed on engaging respondents with new playful techniques that we forget that our internal clients also need engaging.

So  – here’s raising my glass to the humble Word Cloud. And hoping for more eye-opening, easy, scalable techniques and tricks to help us get our insights across in an engaging fashion.

Curious, as ever, as to others’ views.

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6 responses to “Are You Using Word Clouds and Other Useful Visuals?

  1. There are many aspects of your article where we are in complete agreement. Yet, I believe a word of caution is in our own best interest. That is, the software to make word clouds is easy to obtain and generally easy to use. (Check out Wordaizer @ But like an artist’s canvas and pain pallet, in the right hands you get a masterpiece. Give that same tool to someone who has very little experience and you could easily have a mess. So while I agree that word clouds and other data visualization tools are certainly coming and will be needed in the future, we are also going to need researchers who are experts in translating data into compelling visuals. They may not even be researchers; maybe we will be hiring graphic artists as part of our insights groups. Yes; a picture is worth a thousand words. Let’s just be certain the picture and the underlying data tell the same story.

  2. I liked your article and having been using word clouds for well over a year now and for some years, with qual and quant data, I and some brilliant colleagues (researchers and presentation specialists) have explored lots of innovative visualisations to make the insight fun, digestible and easy to walk away with and implement. They’re always a hit with clients. However, what people mustn’t lose sight of when presenting word clouds and other visually appealing graphics is communicating the action behind what the pretty picture is telling. I still provide my clients insight on the themes which emerged, to go beyond the words. If I just leave it at a word cloud, my client can go to herself/himself, without any depth, they don’t need me!

  3. Why do we assume good research has to be boring? Or if a report is too engaging, it may be suspect? This year we have added a graphic designer who understands research and data to our team. Because of the positive feedback from clients and our own increased satisfaction with our reports, we will never go back to standard reporting again. We are also focusing on reporting results beyond the paper using mediums such as video and podcasts. We feel if the client doesn’t engage with or understand the research, we haven’t done our job.

  4. I find simple word-clouds to be less useful where sentiment exists in the content, or where complex ideas are mentioned. I prefer “Concept-Clouds” where a thought/phrase/idea is portrayed in the cloud.

    “I like the long battery life, but it takes too long to recharge”

    It is not enough to simply count 2 mentions of the word long, the meaning is lost.

    My company deals with text analysis and verbatim coding. We have found little use for word counts where creating the code frame. Concept/Sentiment Clouds lead us to the real meaning in the data.

  5. I totally agree Edward. We used a Word Cloud for the first time this year and it was extremely well received by our Marketing audience. We are using them whenever we can to make our presentations and our clients’ dashboards more engaging.

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