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.