Data Visualization: Who Needs a Reality Check?

According to Stephen Few, the founders of Tableau Software made some assumptions about visual analytics’ adoption that we can summarize in a single sentence: analysts want to find hidden insights in large and complex data sets using new visual paradigms. Later on, they discovered that these assumptions were somewhat flawed, and that what people really want is to save time in their daily routine when analyzing small and simple data sets, using familiar formats. Reality check, anyone?

We all make some wrong and costly assumptions. I wrote a blog on data visualization in Portuguese for about a year and then I had to give up, because no one seemed to care. I’m selling a tutorial on how to create Excel dashboards that I am proud of, but I should have started with a simpler version that delivers similar results (I’m working on that, by the way…).

Many of these assumptions are powered by what Chip and Dan Heath in Made to Stick call the “curse of knowledge” (“the better we get at generating great ideas—new insights and novel solutions—in our field of expertise, the more unnatural it becomes for us to communicate those ideas clearly”). Our wishful thinking makes us to believe that the knowledge gap is narrower than it really is, and some basic notions that we take for granted are not.

I’d love to write a blog on data visualization using higher-end tools like Tableau or Spotfire, but you can’t tell people “ditch Excel, use these great tools instead”. They have their (growing) market, but an overwhelming  proportion of business charts are made in Excel because that’s the only tool people have access to. Excel is good enough to teach sound visualization principles, so visualization experts should start by saying “you can do it in Excel; here is how”. At some point the newly acquired knowledge would make people move up, if needed. In information visualization, we have the (graphic literacy-wise) rich and the poor. Now we need a solid middle class. Accessible learning tools is one of the answers.

(This is what I am trying to do with pie charts: instead of banning them, I’m trying to show how to create acceptable pie charts. At some point people will realize that they will need something better. I may be wrong, but the other options don’t seem to be working, either.)

If we fail to communicate this simple message (“you can do it in Excel; here is how”) do you know what we’ll get? A new Dundas/Crystal Xcelsius user.

7 thoughts on “Data Visualization: Who Needs a Reality Check?”

  1. @admin: I concur.
    Tableau is not a cure for Excel. Both products are complementary. I guess many people work on Excel data in Tableau and export the results back in Excel.
    In Chabot’s talk he produced a chart comparing the number of users of different software products. they are at 10k users right now. Products like photoshop have over 1m users, and Excel or Acrobat reader, over 100m.
    So Excel is a de facto standard for the time being, and can do many things. Tableau’s approach is not to say, our product can make things that Excel cannot (which I think is true nonetheless) but rather to say, preparing your data to make your report in Excel took you an hour and a half, and you could have done that in minutes with Tableau.

  2. Reality check:
    People are not looking for charts, but for answers. This is what all have in common – analysts, managers, … We are using complicated techniques because we are not able to find easy ones or we are using simple techniques because we do not know how to do better. In my opinion the ultimate goal is to achieve simplicity through complexity. That day we will have a solution which will provide us with more answers and less charts.

  3. I agree. People need meaningful data representation, nothing fancy. They need a pre defined report they can share with their co-workers. Not a piece of art.

  4. We considered using Tableau at my organization, and I would love to see a review of some of the higher end visualization tools. After evaluating the Tableau software, however, I came to this conclusion:

    Tableau would save me time in implementing dashboards for our management team. However, 99% of time, the information that management needs is from the same report. Build it once, and suddenly Tableau seems like a waste of money. (This depends on the size of your organization of course, but is a valid consideration at any level.)

    Similarly, as mentioned in the About the blog, management skills are often too low to filter, sort, analyze, and charts the information that they need. Higher-end visualization tools, simple enough for managers to use, seem to be appropriate for some audience between management and a business analyst. What organizations are they targeting? What individuals in those organizations?

    Finally, to be frank, I can’t think of a single thing that Tableau can do that I can’t do in Excel. I’d love an example that proves me wrong.

  5. I have just re-written an excel weekly report that I inherited (that was basically several tables of data) into a dashboard format. It is slick, clear and the simple uncluttered graphs instantly give the overall picture. It is a million times better now. I have to say dashboards do it for me.

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