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Finding elegant data visualization solutions to complex challenges

When the McKinsey Global Institute (MGI), the business and economics research arm of McKinsey, came to Upstatement, they had a big idea: to revolutionize the way people interact with their research. Historically, MGI has shared their research in traditional formats—through working papers, articles, and presentations. In an effort to expand their reach and make their expertise more accessible, MGI was ready to shift into developing sophisticated, unique digital offerings. Enter the MGI Global Flows project, an interactive website that visualizes global trade data. It’s the first of its kind, and it establishes a new benchmark for the digital experiences that MGI intends to offer in the future.

What We Did

  • Research & Strategy
  • Web Design
  • Data Platform
  • Interactive Data Visualization

Our Approach

By the time the McKinsey team came to Upstatement, they had put a lot of thought into what kinds of data would be important to represent on an interactive website dedicated to visualizing global trade. The information they wanted to convey was inherently complex—communicating concepts like the supply concentration of various commodities in the world, dependencies between global trade partners, and how trade has evolved over time across countries and sectors. Our challenge was to find elegant solutions to convey these complex concepts.

The first thing we did was define our audience—who was this experience for, and why would it be valuable to them? We determined that while this product would have a wide reach, it should be tailored towards leaders in business, government, and thought, whose goal was to understand trends in global flows and make informed decisions.

We saw this experience as an opportunity to showcase MGI’s expertise, to create a practical tool for leaders, and to build strong foundation for the future of MGI’s digital offerings.

As we developed the product, we knew that we needed to reconcile the tension between “approachable” and “complete”. This led us to following 4 key principles throughout our development process.

1. Go from big to small

A good web experience is deliberate about layering information and delivery, considering the right kind of information at each level. This is even more true for data visualizations. By going from Big to Small, we help a user step through their journey by showing high-level information first, and then leveraging thoughtful UI to reveal the deeper story.

2. Optimize for insight

A web experience is most valuable when it delivers a five-second insight and a 5-minute insight. To achieve both, we adopted multiple tactics. For one, we set meaningful defaults for each chart. For example, if you land on the “trade interdependencies,” the default data view is trade between global powerhouses, the United States and China. Showing default views that illustrate commonly-understood relationship engages the user and encourages them to do more. We also leveraged hovers and sticky functional controls that allowed a user to dig deeper into the experience.

3. Prioritize ‘just enough’ information

We often found ourselves needing to make a decision about how much information should be included in a chart. Too much information would make it difficult to understand the point, and too little information was not meaningful. We were constantly deliberating what information was “just enough.”

To help with decision making, we defined the primary focus for each chart, and then discussed what supporting information was necessary to support that concept. Additional data that we determined as “nice to know” was eliminated from the visualizations.

4. Test early and often

User research and testing is core to how Upstatement builds products, and especially so on this project where the information and use cases were so complex. In addition to user research at the beginning of the project, we incorporated multiple user testing sessions into every two-week sprint, where we gained valuable feedback that helped us adjust and iterate quickly. This ensured that we were not just developing an MVP, but a Minimum Lovable Product that fully serves its community of business, policy, and thought leaders.

The site is an accessible, robust tool that inspires and empowers users. Through use, it also demonstrates the organization’s trademark expertise; the product is a stand-in for McKinsey itself, producing rarified insights through dynamic information processing strategies. A user’s next move might be to escalate their work into a direct engagement with McKinsey—or to find a new way to use the tool. As ever with products, the opportunities for it to grow and evolve are limitless. We’re excited for it to land in the market, and for the ways that it will continue to develop in the future.

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