Episode 4: Making Data Visual with Dr. Kristen Sosulski

Have you considered how visualizing the data your business gathers would give you better insight into new business opportunities?

Whether you’re looking at communications-related data or other types of business data, it’s often difficult to make sense of in the raw format. On episode 4 of Communications. Transformed., I talked with Dr. Kristen Sosulski from NYU’s Stern Business School about how data visualizations can help extract meaningful insights from large data sets.  

Data Visualization is for Everyone

Before getting into some of the key takeaways from our discussion, I wanted to highlight that data visualization can take many forms and can be designed for your customers or for your executive team. Your customers might be interested in an interactive graphic that allows them to compare different products, while your executive team is likely more interested in a flow chart highlighting conversion rates at different parts of the customer journey. Either way, data visualizations help people understand choices they are faced with and make better decisions, whether it’s which sofa to buy or how to tweak the website for better conversion.

Here are some of the key lessons I learned from talking with Professor Sosulski.

  • The first step to using data effectively, including through visualizations, is to build a data-driven culture in your company;
  • Data visualizations can be static or interactive;
  • Creating visual ways to communicate data requires no art skills;
  • Most industries can use data visualization in some way, but the specific use cases will vary;
  • Data visualizations can be used both internally or externally. You can use data to identify business challenges and opportunities as well as part of your sales process, regardless of whether your business is B2B or B2C.

Lastly, the key to any successful data visualization is high-quality data. There simply isn’t a way to create meaningful visualizations if the data you’re basing everything on isn’t reliable or doesn’t include relevant data points.

If you want to dive even deeper into the realm of data visualizations, make sure to check out Professor Sosulski’s recent book, Data Visualization Made Simple or take her online course at NYU.

Key Highlights of the Podcast

Need to skip to the best parts? Here are some of the best moments in our discussion with Professor Sosulski.

  • 4:54: How to build a data-driven company culture
  • 7:50: Best and worst datasets for data visualizations
  • 15:44: Some concrete examples of data visualizations being used in a business setting.

Episode 4: Communications. Transformed.

To learn more about how data visualizations can unlock business insights and help you sell your products or services, listen and subscribe to the full podcast below, on Apple Podcasts, Google Music, Spotify or your favorite podcast player.


Edited Transcript of Episode 4 of ‘Communications. Transformed.’

Kristen Sosulski: 00:00 Building it into your practice to showcase evidence of your data findings is invaluable, and, guess what, your audience will be able to understand, if they’re designed well, understand the key takeaways that you’re trying to communicate in a digestible way without having, you know, training and statistics and machine learning.

Announcer: 00:17 You’re listening to communications transformed, a Podcast from 8x8, where we interview the latest thought leaders and innovators, who share their insights about the future of enterprise communications. Let’s get to the show.

Randy Ksar: 00:37 Welcome everyone to another episode of Communications Transformed. I’m your host, Randy Ksar. Today on the podcast, we have Dr. Kristen Sosulski, the New York University Stern Associate Professor and author. She is at the school of business, where she teaches MBA students and executives on data visualization, programming and business analytics. She is also the director of the Learning Science Lab for NYU Stern, where she develops immersive online training environments for business school education. So, welcome Kristen.

Kristen Sosulski: 01:07 Thank you so much, Randy. Really, a pleasure to be here.

Randy Ksar: 01:10 Yeah, we’re excited to talk about the insights that derive from data visualizations, but I think there’s also the first part is more about what is data visualization. So, let’s first start with that and then we’ll jump right into what your expertise is.

Kristen Sosulski: 01:26 Great.

Randy Ksar: 01:26 So, can you define to us what’s data visualization for those that might not be familiar, or maybe they heard about it, and want to see how it could apply towards their job.

Kristen Sosulski: 01:36 Absolutely. So, I define data visualization as a process of creating data graphics with a message. And, so, if you think about it, you start with the real world, and you have data that represents some real-world phenomena and you take that data and you encode it into shapes and colors to reveal patterns, trends and insights.

Randy Ksar: 02:00 All right, well, there you go. So, that’s a great definition and I think people can relate to that. And, of course, with anything that we’re doing these days, data is always apparent, no matter what environment that we’re in, no matter what industry. It definitely plays a part in communications as well from call center analytics to your mobile devices, all has data attached to it through the mobile apps. So, it definitely plays a part into it. So, how did you get this expertise? Tell us a little bit about your background.

Kristen Sosulski: 02:31 Oh, absolutely. So, you know, I really got into data visualization like most people, like, in grad school, right? So, I discovered my passion for it in grad school, did my undergraduate in information systems, actually at Stern, and was really starting at the dot com era, working with data, and I had an opportunity to work with a film professor to actually visualize the structural elements of film. And, so, it was a really creative time for me and in my life, working with this type of really interesting data and being able to look at narrative and dramatic content through the lens of data visualization.

Randy Ksar: 03:10 Interesting. All right, that’s really unique. So, this is back in dot com, so, the early 2000s?

Kristen Sosulski: 03:16 Yup.

Randy Ksar: 03:17 For those, when they think of visualization, I think a lot of people are like, “I don’t know how to draw, I don’t know how to design.” So, what’s your thoughts around…does everyone have a visual mindset when it comes to business analytics?

Kristen Sosulski: 03:30 When it comes to business analytics, I would say no, and it’s about developing that type of mindset and being deliberate about developing a practice to include visualization as part of your business analytics process. And, so, what I mean by that is that you think of visualization as one of your primary communication mechanisms that you have at your disposal. And, Randy, you mentioned before about designing for mobile or designing for reports and other things. Visualizations can take many forms, and they can be interactive data graphics in which your audience are interacting with your data versus printed reports that you might have at a board meeting. And, so, they all have their own unique use case, but building it into your practice to showcase evidence of your data findings is invaluable, and, guess what, your audience will be able to understand, if they’re designed well, understand the key takeaways that you’re trying to communicate in a digestible way without having training and statistics and, you know, machine learning.

Randy Ksar: 04:34 Yeah, I mean, internally within a company, you have lots of different reports, and it’s not just about the analytics, it’s about the data, right, and more so the insights that come out of that. So, that’s really interesting. So, in terms of having an analytics-driven culture or even more so a data-driven culture within a company, how does one get started on that?

Kristen Sosulski: 04:54 Oh goodness, right, this is such a great question, and I would say it’s really about instilling a data-driven culture within an organization. And, so, there’s a few ways that you can think about it. First, start small, don’t commit to, you know, in full force until you’re ready, give youself time to gather data and evidence and learn how visualization tools can be incorporated into your practice of your organization, whether you’re a huge company or just a startup.

Kristen Sosulski: 05:24 Second, you want a process and a plan. So, after your pilot stage, just like most things, who’s going to own this and who’s going to be the person that’s going to be able to provide the mentorship on the different data graphics that are produced by the firm. Somebody that’s going to be a resource, not just get you through the launch of this initiative. Then, you want to start building experts and teams of experts that could be great analysts, that also are great visualizers. And, then, building champions, so then being able to showcase the value of this change in an organization.

Randy Ksar: 05:59 Yeah, advocates definitely play a part in spreading the culture, you know, the influencers within the company, right, it’s not always necessarily the executive, but who is the person that influences the executive, right?

Kristen Sosulski: 06:10 Yeah, absolutely. Like, to be able to see and understand the value and relevance of this work, and so I think having not just champions, but also partners, people to lead by example and to show the effectiveness of this and I would say to include some kind of training and education. I mentioned mentorship earlier, but I think training and education in this area is absolutely essential. Just because we can use Excel doesn’t mean that we can actually create charts that say anything meaningful. So, there’s really a whole field of visualization, it’s not just, you know, this add on.

Randy Ksar: 06:46 We just talked about a few of the challenges, but what are your thoughts on the top challenges that companies have right now when they’re building these visualizations of their data?

Kristen Sosulski: 06:55 That’s an interesting question. I think that the structure in which they obtain the data, maybe it is structure that makes it hard to visualize it. I notice this a lot, and if you’re not familiar with how to restructure your data appropriately, you can create visualizations that don’t say much or actually say the wrong thing. So, you really have to have some knowledge of what your data means in real life, of course, and to be able to interpret what you see in the visual. Just because it works doesn’t mean it’s really saying anything or saying the right thing.

Randy Ksar: 07:33 So, in terms of the data sets that you’ve dealt with over the years, I mean, what you talked about when you first kind of learned in terms of the film example that you gave, that was pretty interesting. Over the years, what are some of the most interesting data sets that you’ve had to deal with from a visualization standpoint?

Kristen Sosulski: 07:50 So, Randy, I can tell you the worst. For sure, that’s an easier question, but I guess I’ll hold on to that one. One of the most interesting data sets that I’ve worked with actually comes from the Research Alliance for New York City Schools, which is a group here at NYU that has a lot of interesting data on every school, every public school in New York City, everything from location to attendance records by year.

Randy Ksar: 08:16 Definitely…I mean, I have three kids and two are in school, so that would be interesting to see.

Kristen Sosulski: 08:22 Yeah, definitely.

Randy Ksar: 08:23 And, to visualize that, I mean, I think there are some insights there to help the greater good.

Kristen Sosulski: 08:28 Yeah, if you could see where schools are opening and what schools are closing, which ones are receiving more funding versus less funding in your district. These things are really interesting like you said for parents, right? So, this is where visualization can really, like, serve a purpose. You can look by neighborhood, specifically what schools are receiving more funding or have high attendance records, et cetera.

Randy Ksar: 08:49 Yeah, and I can imagine that with all the data out there in the world, I bet you…this is just a complete guess, but 1% of it probably is even looked at, right? I mean, there’s so much data that’s being…whether it’s IT devices, whether it’s our interactions on the computer or just general and personal interactions, there’s so much data out there, but it’s not all being analyzed for the greater good. So, I think that’s something for all of us to think about in our daily lives, right?

Kristen Sosulski: 09:19 Absolutely.

Randy Ksar: 09:19 And, what was the worst data sets, you were mentioning that. Tell us a little bit about that.

Kristen Sosulski: 09:24 So, I think when you did my introduction, you talked about my work in the NYU Stern Learning Science Lab, and, so, I do a lot of work in producing and actually teaching online courses. And, a new area in the world of education is called learning analytics, which is, like, completely fantastic, and a lot of the work we do when we design online courses, we use something called a learning management system and there are…just Google it if you’re not familiar with what it is, but there are plenty of them out in the market and getting the data out of learning management systems is like pretty awful for learning. There are some companies that do it better than others. I think it’s pretty much one of the worst types of data that I could be analyzing.

Randy Ksar: 10:08 All right, well, there’s always room for improvement. If you’re out there listening to us and you’re in the learning management space, definitely hit us up and we can give you some recommendations in the context of Dr. Kristen.

Randy Ksar: 10:20 Let’s take a quick break and learn more about 8x8.

Announcer: 10:25 8x8’s Communications Solutions help businesses transform their customer and employee experience with one system of engagement for cloud voice, video, collaboration and contact center and one system of intelligence on One Cloud Communications platform, businesses can now communicate faster and smarter to exceed the speed of customer expectations. For additional information, visit www.8x8.com or follow 8x8 on Linkedin, Twitter and Facebook.

Randy Ksar: 11:01 Now, let’s get back to the show.

Randy Ksar: 11:03 We were talking offline before this podcast when I was originally talking to you, you travel to Panama every year, I believe with your class, to help a Dell call center. Can you describe that experience and what are you trying to do there and what’s the eventual outcome that you’re trying to achieve?

Kristen Sosulski: 11:17 So, every spring break, I teach a course called Operations in Panama and it’s an MBA-level course and we go to Panama for a week and we observe business operations in practice. One of those is a call center, and we also observe the Panama Canal, for instance. As part of that experience, we’re really concerned with the metrics they use to measure things like productivity and quality and control of customer service levels, for instance, in a call center, and what makes a call center so interesting, I think, from a visualization perspective and a communication one, is that there are monitors everywhere that kind of show you what’s happening now. And, so, there are these dashboards that show you what’s happening in the present moment, which is really useful. A lot of times, when we talk about visualization, we’re talking a lot about things that happened in the past, and I think what’s exciting is to see how people use these visual cues to make decisions in the moment about the present moment.

Randy Ksar: 12:16 Yeah, and in terms of what are you guys trying to achieve out there after…you said you spend a week there, is that right?

Kristen Sosulski: 12:22 We do, yeah.

Randy Ksar: 12:24 And, then, after the end of the week, what’s, kind of, the feeling of the students and what’s the eventual outcome that they bring back to the States?

Kristen Sosulski: 12:30 Well, they absolutely love Panama and all want to move there, it’s an amazing country.

Randy Ksar: 12:35 Number one, yeah.

Kristen Sosulski: 12:37 It’s about…it’s a little smaller than four million people. You know, the class, like I said, is about doing business in Panama, about operations, and the ways in which, I think, some companies still have a little bit of work to do in terms of their operations there, and some, you know, innovations that we can take back home. And, so, part of what they do is they actually come up with their own project where they might study a company and do what we call an ethnography, where they interview folks and they talk through different processes and make suggestions for improvement or analysis or any one of those operational topics from like inventory to quality.

Randy Ksar: 13:14 All right, very cool. So, you’ve got another trip coming up in 2019.

Kristen Sosulski: 13:19 Yes, we do. If there’s any Stern students listening, you know, sign up.

Randy Ksar: 13:25 Awesome, yeah. That’s definitely…we’ll spread the word. So, I mean, one of the things that is pretty exciting for yourself and for us is your new book that just came out on data visualization. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

Kristen Sosulski: 13:38 Absolutely. So, my new book is called Data Visualization Made Simple: Insights into Becoming Visual, and it’s really designed for anyone, from designers to data [inaudible 00:13:49]. So, if you have some experience in visual design, for instance, but not much in data, there’s a chapter on how to structure and transform your data for visualization. If you are a data person and need some help on the design, I have a whole chapter on the various design principles and how to best communicate your insights using the various encodings that are available on these different software packages. If you just, kind of, want to know the different tools that are available, there’s a chapter on that.

Kristen Sosulski: 14:17 And, so, the whole essence of the book is not only to show you how to build data visualizations or what I call data graphics, but more to show you real world examples of how others have used this in their practice. And, this is something that I have really been challenged by, and my students, over the years when I have been teaching the course, Data Visualization, is what is the business case? Why should I do this? Why should I actually put in that extra 20% and how should I use that extra 20% of my time most effectively? And, so, as part of that, there are a set of what I call archetypes, sample templates for the basic chart types that you can just follow, in addition to a series of checklists that ensure that not only you can build the most effective data graphics, but then you can train and mentor others to do that in your organization as well.

Randy Ksar: 15:11 That’s awesome. So, this is available on Amazon, I assume?

Kristen Sosulski: 15:14 Yes, Amazon or you can go directly to the publisher’s website on Routledge.

Randy Ksar: 15:18 All right, cool. We’ll put the link in our show notes so everybody can take a look, and I believe there’s a sample on Amazon that you can take a look at some sample pages. Well, congrats on the launch of that. I think that’s definitely helpful for anybody listening in, definitely pick up a copy of that, we highly recommend it. And, let’s finish off with a few more questions here. So, can you share a story where a business has been greatly surprised by something they have learned via data visualization?

Kristen Sosulski: 15:44 Oh, absolutely. So, let’s just…the company is an HR consulting company who works with and consults for their clients on a variety of issues and one way that they have used data visualization is to illustrate to their clients, who are employers, where their employees rank in terms of compensation compared to the market and also diversity. And, these are just two areas, but there are many more, and so using a visualization, it’s really easy to see where each position is within the salary range or it might be below the salary range or above the salary range, which naturally raises questions. When you look at a visualization like this, like, well, who’s above and who’s below? And, then, what’s their gender, and, blah-blah-blah. So, it ends up being a very interesting set of questions and dialogue and a tool that this HR consulting company uses with their client to kind of prompt these discussions, so you can easily see who is out of range and who is within the range, whether in the low or the high end, and then take action.

Randy Ksar: 16:56 That’s interesting. Okay, so, HR recruiting, that’s definitely one vertical, one industry that would benefit from using data visualization. Are there any other industries that you think would be more prone to taking advantage of this?

Kristen Sosulski: 17:08 I mean, obviously, if you think about any kind of consulting or market consulting, definitely really huge opportunity there. So, if you want to look at, for example, when you are filling your shopping cart up, whatever company, whatever eCommerce site that you’re on, you’re filling your shopping cart up on your desktop, and let’s say as the business, you want to know when the customer converts. Do they convert on their mobile device, do they convert, meaning do they buy the products in their shopping cart back on their desktop? Do they keep it, you know, their shopping cart full for a few days or a few weeks before they convert and where do they convert. And, so, being able to visualize what we call the path to purchase is very, very powerful. So, definitely on the sales marketing end.

Kristen Sosulski: 17:55 I have seen people use visualization really to, kind of, like, sell who they are and what they do. I just did a talk for this meetup on women and data, science and machine learning, and it was hosted by this company called Enigma. And, they do a lot of work with open source data and the visualizations that they have created to showcase their work are absolutely amazing. And, they really do show real insight, so a very talented group of people there. I have also seen a lot of other companies use visualization as ways to really work together with their clients to showcase where the consulting company can help in improving their business.

Randy Ksar: 18:35 All right, cool. Some great examples. I’m sure there’s plenty more also in your book, right?

Kristen Sosulski: 18:40 Absolutely. The second to the last chapter is filled with cases from real folks talking about how visualization was used in their practice, along with interviews that are throughout the book [inaudible 00:18:51]

Randy Ksar: 18:50 Very cool. Last question before we get to the rapid fire, bum-bum-bum, where do you see data visualization 10 years from now? I mean, we’re just…not necessarily in the beginning of it, but I think there’s so much new technology from a visualization standpoint in terms of devices, but what are your thoughts? Ten years is a long way from now, what are your thoughts?

Kristen Sosulski: 19:13 You know, I imagine and I hope that in 10 years from now that this knowledge economy of the future is a world where our data is easily accessible and integrated in systems that make it easy to query from an organization or a business point of view that they have adopted a data-driven, inquiry-based approach to decision making. And, these two things together I think set the stage for whether the tools change and the data is getting bigger, but, you know, we’re really in a place right now where there are dashboards for everything, but they’re not necessarily integrated. So, I imagine more responsive devices and having kind of a master dashboard that will allow us to see components of our business really integrated, but also looking at the possibilities of augmented and virtual reality, that will present really new ways that we’ll look at ourselves and the world.

Randy Ksar: 20:11 Yeah, that will be interesting. I mean, in our previous episode, we chatted with a gentleman over in the UK who was doing some AR consumer experiences, and that’s definitely something that we’re seeing across some of our customers. So, adding that in terms of just the pure visualization of consumer products, but also behind the scenes of the data insights, that would be really interesting to see.

Randy Ksar: 20:36 All right, well, thank you so far for the tons of great insight. I guess the last question would be how do people get a hold of you if they want to reach out to you? I know we talked about the book, but if someone wants to reach out to you, what’s the best way to reach out to you?

Kristen Sosulski: 20:50 Okay, so, there’s a few ways. So, you can follow me on Twitter, it’s just my last name, Sosulski, you can email me at [email protected] or you can visit my website kristensosulski.com. I’m the only Kristen Sosulski, I think, in the world, so you can find me.

Randy Ksar: 21:08 All right. And, then, I just want to…I always ask my guests if there’s anything else that they want to say, you have the mic now. I know you wanted to talk about one opportunity for an online class that you’re doing.

Kristen Sosulski: 21:20 Yeah, oh, thank you so much, Randy. So, this February 2019, I am offering an online certificate in visualizing data through NYU Stern School of Business, and it will be an eight week online course and we will discuss techniques for visualizing data, creating interactive visual graphics, how to use data as evidence and designing persuasive data presentations, and it’s completely online and I will be the professor for the course. And, I have designed it myself and it is completely based off of the book, and this gives you an opportunity to actually practice everything that is discussed and presented in the book.

Randy Ksar: 21:53 Awesome. We’ll put a link, definitely, in our blog post and the show notes. So, thank you for that opportunity. All right, and, lastly, rapid fire. We’re going to do some quick questions, whatever comes to your mind-

Kristen Sosulski: 22:04 Uh oh.

Randy Ksar: 22:04 We’re just going to blurt it out, and we have the ability to bleep out anything. So, all right, first question.

Kristen Sosulski: 22:12 Okay.

Randy Ksar: 22:12 Favorite visualization you’ve ever created.

Kristen Sosulski: 22:15 Okay, so, this is going to be for, like, a nuanced audience, but Steve [inaudible 00:22:19] on his Tumblr page documented every murder that took place on the show called Columbo from the 70s and it was called Kill Shot Fridays. I had the opportunity to work with this data that he labored over, actually analyzing himself and building, to kind of discover, like, trends and patterns of the makeup and composition of the Columbo episodes.

Randy Ksar: 22:43 That’s awesome. Good ole Peter Faulk. All right, Giants or Jets? I know it’s a tough question.

Kristen Sosulski: 22:48 Um, I’m going to say Steelers.

Randy Ksar: 22:53 Steelers, wait a minute, what’s the deal with that?

Kristen Sosulski: 22:56 So, I come from, like, a black and gold family, so my husband is from outside Pittsburgh and my father is actually a Steelers fan as well, so, yeah I can’t get out of it.

Randy Ksar: 23:07 Man, all right, that’s a tough Thanksgiving dinner there. All right, one thing that isn’t on your Linkedin profile.

Kristen Sosulski: 23:15 Okay, so, I’m obsessed with this Japanese character called Gonta-Kun and he was a Japanese gopher that appeared on a children’s television show hosted by NHK in Japan from the 60s through the 90s.

Randy Ksar: 23:33 All right, so, if there’s an interest tag on your Linkedin profile, that’s what it would be.

Kristen Sosulski: 23:39 Totally.

Randy Ksar: 23:40 All right. I’m sure there’s a community out there. All right, well, thank you for your time, Kristen. It’s been a pleasure and we really learned a lot, and I hope our listeners did as well. So, thank you.

Kristen Sosulski: 23:51 Thank you so much, Randy. This was super fun.

Randy Ksar: 23:54 All right guys, well, as always, rate and review this podcast if you liked what you listened to, let us know. So, have a great day and stay tuned to the next episode on the Communications Transformed podcast. Bye.

Randy Ksar: 24:08 Thank you for staying until the very end of the podcast. We want to invite you to the Communications Transformed Linkedin group, where you can network with other Communications Transformed experts, guests on the show and myself. In addition, if you want to be featured on the podcast, share your story on how communications have transformed your business, join today at bit.ly/8x8podcast.

Announcer: 24:29 You have been listening to Communications Transformed. To ensure that you never miss an episode, subscribe to the show in your favorite podcast player. Thank you so much for listening. Until next time.



Randy Ksar


Senior Social Media Manager at 8x8 based in San Jose, California. Passionate about empowering the community to share their stories for others to learn from. When not glued to his computer screen you can find him on the SF Bay Area trails or at the little league field with his sons. [...] Read More >

  • icon-gray-twitter.png
  • icon-gray-linkedin.png