Innovations in Data Visualization – Visual analytics

A wise man once told me, “Look at the data. What are the data telling you?” That was my dissertation advisor, some twenty years ago, before the term data visualization was even coined. And that’s the sensible advice I’ve followed throughout my career when analyzing all different kinds of data.

Data visualization in the form of slicing and dicing, charting and pivoting is standard for most knowledge workers performing data analysis. BI vendors provide visualization in the form of charts and tables of data cut different ways. Microsoft provides its ever-popular pivot table, but dealing with the data can be cumbersome, especially if you want to explore the data quickly across multiple dimensions.

Marcia Kaufman and I recently got a chance to meet with Christian Chabot, CEO and co-founder and Elissa Fink, VP of Marketing from Tableau Software, Seattle, Washington. They impressed us both with Tableau’s innovations in data visualization.

The visualization is the query

So, what’s so interesting about Tableau’s approach?

Consider the following typical analysis problem. You are trying to analyze sales for different categories of TV sets at ten different store locations for the first half of the year. Data include location, region, TV type (flat panel LCD, flat panel plasma, LCD projection, etc.) date sold, dollar value, sales person, as well as information about promotions and warranty plans. If you used a pivot table in Microsoft Excel, you could cross-tab and slice and dice information, you could even drag and drop various attributes onto a chart. At the end of the day, however, you are still left looking at a two-dimensional static plot, or (more likely) a bunch of static plots, trying to derive insight.

With Tableau, it’s not about slotting the data into a plot or report to examine; it’s about rapid visual analysis of the data.

Tableau reads in structured data from many sources such as Excel, Access, text files, SQL Server, Oracle, DB2, MySQL, PostgreSQL, Firebird, Netezza, SQL Server Analysis Services, and Hyperion Essbase. The columns in an Excel spreadsheet would be read into Tableau and put into something it calls a dimension (non numeric) or a metric (numeric) that are listed on the left hand side of the Tableau screen. The user then simply drags and drops as many of these dimensions and metrics as desired onto the palette and the visual representation of the data changes.

In the example above, you might first start an analysis looking at sales of TVs by category and by region.

TVs by Category by Region

Then you might drag in another “column” that further breaks this down into the type of TV in each of the categories such as flat panel LCD, flat panel plasma, etc. onto the palette. This changes the visualization to include this additional dimension.





By interacting with the visual in this manner, the user is querying the visual. The product makes it easy to look at the data dynamically from all different angles, thereby enabling rapid analysis and discovery.

Here are a few of the features that make the analysis quick:

  • The product makes good use of color, so for example, losses would be shown in red. There are also very nice graphical representations to work with.
  • If the underlying data permit, Tableau lets users look across any time dimension (daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly, yearly) with a simple click of a drop down menu.
  • If you don’t want a particular time dimension included in the analysis, simply select and remove it and the visual changes.
  • Tableau lets the user drill down into the visual, to see the underlying data.

The product is flexible and extremely easy to use. It’s also visually appealing – the company definitely practices what it preaches. The charts are clean and crisp and there is good use of color. The latest version of Tableau (3.5) also includes Tableau Server, a Web-based sharing and publishing solution that enablers users to share their results with others. The Personal Edition is a visual analysis and reporting solution for data stored in Excel, MS Access or Text Files with a price tag of $999.00. It’s worth looking in to.


2 thoughts on “Innovations in Data Visualization – Visual analytics”

  1. Tableau is undeniably a very interesting product, but it does not help organizations escape from the fundamental fact that BI tools promote – at best – situational awareness. That is, they provide flexible visualization of data to help organizations understand (1) their current state (i.e., what is happening now) and (2) how they came to be in that state (i.e., what happened in the past).

    Arguably, predictive analytics provides a little insight into (3) what might happen in the immediate future, but this is only possible if the world does not change too much (or non-linearly). Typically, the world is fairly uncooperative in this regard. However, in some situations, such tools offer some degree of confidence in supply chain projections for a few weeks forward, etc.

    What most BI users really want, and can’t get today, Tableau notwithstanding, is some insight into (4) How is the world
    is likely going to evolve over time? and (5) What is going to happen to us and to other parties of interest to us (e.g., competitors, customers, suppliers) if we do X to try to shape the world to our advantage?

    For this, we believe you need an entirely approach that is future- rather than present- and past-directed. Bi provides critical inputs to the projecting process, but entirely different methods and tools are needed, such as scenario planning methodologies to help define (1) the expected drivers of situational change over time (forces, trends, events) and (2) “what-if” behavioral simulation tools to project plausible futures and the impact of candidate plans, strategies, investments to alter those trajectories. In effect, future directed awareness, which is the key to TRUE decision support, requires capabilities to “test drive” critical decisions, the results of which can then be depicted flexibly via visual analytic tools such as Tableau.

  2. I agree that there are a range questions that users of “BI” want answered and you bring up some good ones. I think the folks at Tableau would be the first to say that their product can certainly be used in conjunction with other software. Their goal is to help users get to rapid insight.

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