Collecting, mining and analyzing data in the best way possible may seem like the holy grail of analytics, but the ability to make decisions on data is only as good as the ease with which it can be read. That is where good data visualization techniques come in. With the right visual representations of data through charts and graphs, today’s best legal analytics tools can help the analyst quickly identify issues with the data, assess outliers, and recognize potential patterns.

“You can spend all the time in the world mining data, developing and administering a database that collects all of your information and have the best model, but if you present it to your users in a way that makes it impossible to consume and understand, it will quickly become an unused asset,” says Scott Springer, senior director at HBR Consulting. Most simply, visualization makes it easier to “discover” information, meaning it helps users identify trends in historical data, query data to quickly answer questions that used to require database experts and pinpoint outliers that exist in data sets.

There is a reason why Apple is one of the most successful companies in the world, he points out — it thinks first and foremost about how consumers will interact with its products. “In the age of mobility and web-based applications, law firm users are not going to accept antiquated data visualization techniques or products that are not easy to use,” he says.

As legal technology has become more advanced, data visualization has evolved significantly, he adds. “Just five years ago, the tools we have today that support self-service analytics and visualizations did not exist,” he says. The visualization landscape, he explains, is changing completely with platforms that require very little training and significantly smaller learning curves to roll out on a broad scale.

“It has been exciting to see law firms move from static budget reporting techniques like PDFs and spreadsheets to visuals that provide stoplight-like details and drill-down capabilities,” he says. In addition, these tools have fueled increased collaboration at law firms and bring a level of transparency that provides immediate value through tighter compliance to budgets, especially in areas like business development.

However, data visualization is a two-way street. You cannot have good visualizations without clean data, Springer explains, and you cannot have clean data without visualizations. “Otherwise, you will always find yourself searching for the needle in the haystack,” he says. “Just think about how difficult it would be to use platforms like Twitter or Facebook if tweets and posts came through in plain text in a single line on a spreadsheet – not convenient, easy or fun to use.”

To take optimal advantage of data visualization options within legal analytics tools, a close partnership with IT is a must. More and more firms, says Springer, are employing a dedicated support staff, and even UI or UX-trained employees, to support their data platforms.

“The failures that I have seen can most often be equated to lack of a long-term vision for support of these products,” he says. Regardless of how self-service a visualization claims to be, there will always be a learning curve and a premium on helping to curate the right information to the right people, he adds: “Given how fast this space is changing, it often requires either dedicated support and training resources or partnering with a third-party that can help you stay on top of the latest trends.”

Sharon Goldman has been covering B2B technology topics for more than 10 years, including for publications such as CIO.com, Adweek, Digital Insurance, Shopper Marketing and DMNews.