Oct 27, 2011

Finding Stories in Data: Hot’s Work with PopTech

Hot Studio was thrilled when PopTech approached us earlier this year about creating an iPad app that would be featured at its annual conference, held last week in Camden, Maine. We’ve long admired their commitment to helping social entrepreneurs accelerate their missions, and were excited to help.

PopTech’s project was an ambitious one. They wanted their app to feature data, visualizations, and content from three of the organization’s partners—the New York Times R&D Lab, PwC, and the United Nations Global Pulse—and also highlight PopTech’s own work. Hot was asked to design the app itself, and to conceptualize and design the visualizations from PwC and the UN.

While Hot has a deep background in application design, visualizations represented a relatively new challenge. In turn, the project became a real chance to learn, not only about the amazing work being done by PopTech and its partners, but also about the process of transforming huge amounts of data into tangible, compelling, and interactive visual narratives.

Sarah Brooks, who leads Hot’s Social Innovation practice, was tasked with concepting the overall framework for the application, and the specific themes for the PwC visualizations.

“I began the process by mapping trends in global social change onto projects that the PopTech fellows were working on,” said Sarah. “The goal was to relate the trends and the essence of each partner’s project to this year’s conference theme—World Rebalancing.”

Trends that emerged included increasing urbanization of global populations, emerging economies in the developing world and their attendant innovations, new approaches to resource challenges, and new relationships between the public and private sectors. Together, the Hot and PopTech teams went through an iterative process of working through dozens of themes, ultimately settling on a final four—Media & Memory, which utilizes the New York Times data; Pulse of the Planet, which uses UN and Jana data; the Future of Business, drawn from PwC data; and PopTech in Action, which highlights the work of the PopTech fellows, in video.

Photo by Kris Krüg for PopTech

Hot was then able to begin telling stories and creating the look and language of the visualizations themselves. The challenge was to find the stories within the data, so that our visual design team could create the visualizations.

Eric Grant, Hot’s Director of Brand Experience, led the design effort for the visualizations, as well as the overall creative direction and vision of the app design and interactions.

Eric and his team began by exploring several interaction models, which would serve as the blueprint for the application’s interface design. Should the experience be like a gallery, where users could reflect on the information at their own pace? Should it feel like a magazine, rich with curated content and information? Or should the app be like a playground—a fun and playful experience where users explore new things and interact with others? The answer, it turned out, was all three.

With the interactions in place, the next step was to create a visual system that made the data easy to understand, and naturally interactive. Hot went through a trial-and-error process in developing visual concepts before settling on a simple, yet effective concept—a map interface that separately featured data from PwC and the UN. Using the map interface, Hot was able to visualize thousands of answers from PwC’s executive survey, and more than 75,000 responses from the UN. 

Photo by Kris Krüg for PopTech

“Designing a data visualization is more than just designing graphics,” said Eric. “You really have to dig deep into the data, extract relevant information and design it in a way that presents your story in a compelling and intuitive manner.”

Both Sarah and Eric were quick to note that the overall process was a fun and rewarding challenge for Hot Studio. More importantly, the app will continue to grow, become more interactive and help further the missions of PopTech and its partners.

Be sure to download the app, free of charge, from the Apple App Store and begin learning about all the amazing work being done by our friends at PopTech.