There's much talk going on about information visualization. Quite many posts in our blog are about visualization, one way or another. We are very consistent in applying the infoviz principles to our product, as a part of improving user experience. Visual data representations are very well-suited for project management tools, as, not to get into too much details, the visuals save time that would have been wasted, if someone tried to retrieve the same info from tables and non-visual reports. Visualizations let people get a general overview of any issue as fast as possible (note, that "a general overview" is the keyword here). That's why visuals hit pay dirt in planning, tracking and reporting, as it goes about project management.
With so much value in it, people sometimes underestimate the power of visualized data. They might not care if they can get this info quickly or slowly. They are even scared if the visuals look too complicated. Or, certain competences are required to use some visuals. Take a look at this chart:
We have it in our project management tool. One needs to have some knowledge of lean methodology to be able to get the best of it, or take some time to read what it's about. Once you get the meaning of this chart, it becomes an indispensable tool for getting a major overview of a project's health, and resolving the issues identified. This is just one example. So, to be able to take advantage of what visualization brings to the table, we need to educate ourselves. Well, if some info is visualized as an icon there's no need to think. Anyway, each and every infoviz visual (not only in project management tools) comes with a legend. So, it's not that hard, and reading a legend can be enough.
When is it overrated? Shortly, when it's visualization just for the sake of visualization. Yes, visuals can be beautiful on their own, and visualization can be treated as a special brand of fine arts. But "visualization" is not the same as "painting". It's a purely pragmatic technique aimed at helping people solve problems, and it has its limits. Just to remind, I'm talking only about data visualization (not visual storytelling, etc. ) Visualizations provide "a general overview", mostly. I might be mistaken but that's an impression that I get looking at most data visuals.
There are 2 scenarios:
1. An overview provided by a visual is enough to solve a problem:
Look at a visual -> Identify a problem -> Solve it
2. An overview provided by a visual is not enough to solve a problem:
Look at a visual -> Identify a problem -> Get more info -> Solve the problem
The catch is in the 2nd scenario, and in the "Get more info" part. A visual can fault here. You might need to get hold of more reports, more sources, talk to people, etc. to get to the roots of the problem. That's where we risk to overrate a data visual, as it is not meant to carry someone as deep as to the Earth core. Well, if a data visual comes as a part of a complete project management tool, quick links from the visual to getting more data can help, and that's how we have it implemented in our tool. But you never know. "Get more info" is not always about looking at the stats. It very often means talking to people. Unfortunately (or fortunately) data visualization can't help here. Probably, if each and every problem could have been helped by looking at visuals and data, people would have stopped talking to each other.. Brrr... Might be it's just a long Friday for me today...