Good Visual Conversations

Human beings are social animals, we are programmed to learn and thrive through interaction with other members of our species.  Looking back to prehistoric times, this was really the only way we could pass knowledge to one another (yup, another history lesson).  In today’s world, there are endless opportunities for interactions, both physical and virtual.  The problem is we are often overwhelmed with too much stimulation, and many end up with the desperate need to unplug on some tropical island somewhere in the South Pacific (I’m currently accepting donations for this if interested in sponsoring me). 


Sporting events, concerts, trendy restaurants, private cocktail parties, and even work functions; these are just a few examples of the many ways we interact with our fellow humans on a regular basis.  Believe it or not, they all have an underlying purpose, which is to relay meaning and information between individuals. By physically interacting with each other, we utilize speech, mannerisms and non-verbal cues to exchange information and meaning.  There is a lot of power in this sort of communication. 


Paul Grice, a 20th century philosopher, is among many that have studied this unique skill, specifically in the realm of linguistics.  He was quite fascinated with the way we convey meaning and understanding through speech, and as a result developed some basic “conversational maxims”.  These principles outlined the key features of a good conversation, basically how to talk to someone and make it the most effective. 


We’ve all been in the uncomfortable situation of having to carry on a conversation with someone that wasn’t pleasant, our mind wanders, we blurt out pointless phrases, all to wrap it up so we can move on somewhere else.  Subconsciously, we are trying to eliminate that investment in energy because we’re not benefiting from it.  Paul determined that there were some basic rules we can follow to try and avoid that unpleasantness:



  • Make your contribution to the conversation as informative as necessary
  •  Do not make your contribution to the conversation more informative than necessary



  • Do not say what you believe to be false
  • Do not say that for which you lack adequate evidence



  • Be relevant (that is, say things related to the current topic of conversation)



  • Avoid obscurity of expression
  • Avoid ambiguity
  • Be brief (avoid unnecessary wordiness)
  • Be orderly


Physical conversations are designed to exchange ideas and information, and visual design attempts the same goal through our eyes.  By considering these same basic principles in our design of visualizations, we can better avoid those awkward scenarios where people get frustrated and miss our intended message.  Lets apply these principles to concepts of visual design within Splunk:



Choose the right format for your data, whether be a statistical table or visualization.  If you need to present specific details on individual values or need to be precise, a table would be the way to go.  If you want to review an entire series, or detect outliers you should be leaning towards a visual.  

Choosing the right visual is key, because otherwise you run the risk of providing the wrong level of information, so whenever possible try to utilize one of the “Recommended” visualizations offered in Splunk.  They will dynamically change based on the format and structure of your search results!


Splunk is an extremely powerful search language, with over 140 embedded commands that can be combined in endless ways to retrieve and transform your data.  Utilize online help and provided syntax examples if unsure of proper usage, otherwise you run the risk of displaying incorrect data, that will ultimately lead to a failed visualization.


This may seem pretty obvious, but when designing a dashboard, pre-determine its intent and audience, and resist the urge to include ancillary panels that don’t directly contribute to it.  Unnecessary details, excessive images, and other distractions will ultimately weaken your intent and may result in a failed experience. 



Be thoughtful in the various settings of your chosen visualization.  Background colors, number of series, legends and other settings can all obfuscate your data and meaning if not careful.  

When designing content in Splunk, take advantage of good visuals, the robust search language, and be thoughtful of your intended message.  This will ensure you have a good visual conversation with your audience and they will want to see you again!


Eric Merkel

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