Monthly Archives: February 2012

Are You Seeing Everything That You Can?

Like a lot of boutique consultancies, much of our time is spent analyzing and synthesizing pre-existing data and condensing it into useful information. At that point, we’re not done. At least as much time goes into shaping information into something doesn’t just explain, but convinces and persuades. This allows us to use a relatively small set of tools that work with a wide variety of data sources. One of those tools is Tableau and we find it makes relatively short work of the data visualization piece of the puzzle. Its not the only data visualization tool that we’re prepared to use but its served us well and our clients. A picture may not be worth a thousand words, and correlation still isn’t causation, but its still too important to be left to more generic tools and vendors.  I was still surprised, however, by the passion of the denunciation Stephen Few made of the existing large Business Intelligence vendors and the press that evaluates them when I read this at his Visual Intelligence blog yesterday:

 All along, these organizations have needed what good data visualization vendors like Tableau and their kin have been providing—effective ways to explore and analyze data—because the big BI vendors haven’t provided it and still don’t, which brings us to Evelson’s most naïve and potentially harmful statement: “These days all of the other vendors have perfectly fine data visualization capabilities.” After I read this, my wife mistook my convulsions as a seizure. Evelson’s statement couldn’t be more wrong. To date, none of the big BI software companies support data visualization in a manner that is “perfectly fine” or even reasonably adequate. They allow you to view data in graphs, but do so in embarrassingly inadequate ways. This inadequacy is especially apparent when we narrow our focus to exploratory data analysis, which requires meaningful and rapid interaction with data. Neither PowerPivot from Microsoft, Business Objects Explorer, nor any of the other attempts that I’ve seen by big BI vendors to enable exploratory data analysis have advanced past kindergarten. To draw on my Biblical roots for a moment, good visual analysis products such as Tableau, Tibco Spotfire, and SAS JMP lead people who have previously stumbled around in the dark using clunky BI products to exclaim “I was blind but now I see.”

I am curious if there are people out there who’ve had the opposite experience to what Stephen Few has mentioned: have they been unimpressed with the capabilities of the smaller vendors? I’ve yet to run into those people, but I’d be very interested in hearing from any disgruntled customers who think data visualization is over hyped. That certainly isn’t our experience.