Data Visualisation – More than Pretty Pictures

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So Tableau is what you use to make those pretty pictures, is it? No.

I use Tableau to create insightful, informative data visualisations. Not pretty pictures.

How often have you been asked the above question or heard comments along those lines which are an insult to the technical intricacies, the features, the capabilities of the software, the hard work that went into creating a data visualisation and analytics tool which is so powerful, sophisticated but at the same time easy to use?

Calling data visualisation ‘pretty pictures’ may be done in jest. But it ain’t funny and it really rubs me the wrong way. It is patronising and in my view not only suggests a ‘dumb’ tool, but also unsophisticated users.

Maybe these comments come from a time when most of the sophistication was really in the data retrieval, processing and transformation and visualisations were limited to simple tables. Suddenly there are advanced diagrams, charts and maps and people can’t really explain how they came about. Pretty pictures then, nothing more to it, is there?

From where I’m sitting there are three main components in the data visualisation journey.

  1. Get your data from somewhere
  2. Transform it and clean it up (if needed)
  3. Visualise it to enable meaningful conversations and decision-making based on facts

Without step 1 you have nothing to work with.
Without step 2 you have data and you can visualise it, but it might be rubbish
Without step 3 you have clean data at your disposal but it’s just a huge amount of data, not meaningful, actionable information

Let’s look at it in a different way.

  1. Get your dinner ingredients from the supermarket
  2. Wash, chop and prepare your ingredients. Mise en place. Get your pots, pans and utensils ready
  3. Cook, create, season and plate up your dish

Without step 1 you’ll stay hungry
Without step 2 you’ll be cooking whole potatoes with a spatula in the pan
Without step 3 you’ll be eating raw chopped up ingredients, having to imagine what could have been if only you could make a meal of it

Yes, without data we’re not even coming out of the starting block, but to me the three steps are equal in their importance.

Data visualisation makes your data shine and it actually enables you to draw conclusions from the information.

I know a number of people who are technically excellent, very passionate and enthusiastic about data visualisations and about enabling their users to get insights.

Data visualisation is a powerful technique and becomes ever more important as organisations amass ginormous amounts of data.

I urge people not to discredit data visualisation by calling it ‘pretty pictures’. A lot of thought, expertise and effort goes into creating those dashboards they take for granted. Are those dashboards simple, clear and easy to understand? Simplification is difficult. Taking away as much as possible while still providing all the necessary information is an art.

And what about those dynamic filters, impactful maps, the trends and thoughtful commentary throughout the reports? A lot more effort went into that than drawing some stick figures on the whiteboard.

Use data visualisations to your benefit, let it guide your decision making and help you understand your organisation, where it’s heading, what your customers are doing, how your products are performing. And acknowledge the clever team members who created those visualisations for you.


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