DVR TIG Week: Word Clouds: More Cloudy Than Clear? By Deven Wisner

Hi, my name is Deven Wisner, the Manager of Human Capital & Business Analytics at Global Registration Services, Inc. By night, I am an independent evaluator and blogger — more on that here!

Word Clouds. Let’s talk about them. Specifically, when are they appropriate to use? And more importantly, when shouldn’t they be used.

If you’re like a lot people, word/tag clouds are a tool you use to visualize qualitative data. You put a bunch of data in and out pops a beautiful (okay, only sometimes) arrangement of words. If you are a dataviz nerd, you might be comforted by looking at something other than a qualitative results table. Even if you haven’t entitled yourself a dataviz machine, you might think your word cloud is quite eye-catching. And guess what? You’re probably right.

So, what’s the problem? Glad you asked. Word clouds may appear to be the “sexy” version of a table full of themes, definitions, frequencies, and examples, but they can also be extremely misleading. Also, when is the last time you saw a word cloud with all those important details listed? As Robert Hein from VisionCritical wrote about word clouds, “Size isn’t everything…” (2011).

More? Okay, here are some key issues with word clouds:

  • Readers use the size of a word to determine its importance
  • Visuals are often clouded (pun definitely intended) with prepositions
  • Interpretations are left entirely up to the reader

Therefore, as data driven decision makers who have a responsibility to disseminate information that is easy to digest, let’s stop using word clouds as the easy way out of not knowing what to do with our qualitative data!

Instead, how about we try to…

  • Avoid being lazy and list some great examples with some color to call out important pieces of the excerpt (again, no one cares about prepositions!)
  • Incorporate icons and color in your coding process (as great as black text on a white background is, let’s be a little more creative),
  • Add a photo to compliment a quote.

Still determined to get some word cloud action into your report? Fine. If you insist. Let’s agree to only use word clouds when…

  • You need a content specific decoration (because at the end of the day, that’s what they are).
  • You can’t form themes or trends.
  • Interpretation does not matter (data is purely exploratory).
  • You need help identifying themes (sometimes seeing word counts can help, but be careful about the bias involved with this).

So, what did we learn? Word clouds have their uses, but it is important to use the right visualization tool for the data that needs to be displayed. The resources below provide fresh ideas for visualizing qualitative data and help to identify which tool to use when.

Rad Resources:

The American Evaluation Association is celebrating Data Visualization and Reporting (DVR) Week with our colleagues in the DVR Topical Interest Group. The contributions all this week to aea365 come from DVR TIG members. Do you have questions, concerns, kudos, or content to extend this aea365 contribution? Please add them in the comments section for this post on the aea365 webpage so that we may enrich our community of practice. Would you like to submit an aea365 Tip? Please send a note of interest to aea365 is sponsored by the American Evaluation Association and provides a Tip-a-Day by and for evaluators.

1 thought on “DVR TIG Week: Word Clouds: More Cloudy Than Clear? By Deven Wisner”

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