I have previously compared data visualizations to the magic mirrors of business intended to reflect what you need to see, such as true business insights, but which, because of how our eyes process data, may just be reflecting back your own image of what you want your data to show you.
WYSIWYG is an acronym for “what you see is what you get” that, in user interface design, provides users with the ability to visualize data, either for presentation (e.g., when the user is creating information or preparing a report), or analysis (e.g., when the user is referencing a report or examining raw data).
WYSIATI is an acronym for “what you see is all there is” that was coined by Daniel Kahneman in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow. “Jumping to conclusions on the basis of limited evidence is important to an understanding of intuitive thinking,” Kahneman explained. Although intuition (one aspect of thinking fast) is valuable under many circumstances, we are often “radically insensitive to both the quality and the quantity of the information that gives rise to impressions and intuitions.”
“It is the consistency of the information,” Kahneman explained, “that matters for a good story, not its completeness. Indeed, you will often find that knowing little makes it easier to fit everything you know into a coherent pattern. WYSIATI facilitates the achievement of coherence and cognitive ease that causes us to accept a statement as true. It explains why we can think fast, and how we are able to make sense of partial information in a complex world. Most of the time, the coherent story we put together is close enough to reality to support reasonable action.”
When you are using data visualizations to support reasonable business actions and satisfactory decisions, what you are looking at can greatly influence what you are looking for (and vice versa).
“O say can you see by the data’s insight?” would make a great opening line to the starry-eyed spangled banner of data visualization’s anthem. But whether visualization waves over data free of preconceptions, thus braving homing in on true business insights, depends on you.
Therefore, when you are looking at data visualizations, consider if what you see is what you wanted to get, which could cause you to jump to the comforting, but false, conclusion that what you see is all there is.