Make the right things easy… a story of horses and data visualisation

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In Australia, before I started riding bikes for many hours on the weekend, I rode horses. I’d spend hours with them, leading trail rides for tourists and locals, teaching riding lessons for kids and working with horses that needed a bit of exercise.

In May 2014 I treated myself to a week-long course on horsemanship in Tamworth, in the New England region in the state of New South Wales in Australia. I wanted to learn more about working with horses and communicating with them in a way that made sense and would improve our bond.


Little did I know that the lessons I picked up would prove extremely valuable in all aspects of my life. I don’t claim for them to be revolutionary, they just make sense. But looking back at the years since that course made me realise how much of those approaches I have been taught have carried over into my everyday life: my work, my interactions with friends and family, my writing, my habits and my other hobbies.

That’s why I want to share what I learned there in the hope you will get some use out of it.

This blog comes in two parts, the first focusing on the work environment and the second on our personal lives, so stay tuned for part two coming out in a week’s time.

When working with animals…

Make the right things easy and the wrong things hard

Obviously animals don’t speak our language. They need to be trained in a certain way, we can’t just tell them what to do.

Making the right things easy and the wrong things hard is an important concept when training animals. By ensuring they can do something we want them to do by making it almost impossible for them to get it wrong, we help them learn quickly and get their reward along the way.

Dogs love to please their humans (cats probably couldn’t care less), as do other animals, like horses. They’re ‘proud’ when they do stuff right, so let’s make it easy for them.

This fundamental idea translates very easily into our professional and personal lives.

When working with people…


Sharing information with others

When we share information, we usually do so to help an audience understand something about a topic. In the Tableau community, many of us create reports and dashboards for management teams in our organisations to share insights about the company’s performance. Others create visual data stories to raise awareness for societal challenges. And some of us just want to show some interesting data in a new way.

Making the right things easy in this context means making it easy for the consumers of the information to get the right insights, understand how the insights were arrived at and know how to interact with the dashboard.

What can help people do that?

  • very clear headings and text components in your viz
  • good colour choices that guide the viewer
  • easy to understand navigation through simple buttons and calls to action (‘Click here!’)
  • a clear story with a logical flow
  • appropriate charts to visualise the data

How does this help make the ‘wrong things’ hard?

  • when your message is clear and you state exactly what the insights are, you make it hard for your audience to misunderstand your findings
  • when you use colours effectively and have a clear story line, your viewers will ‘get your message’ much more easily
  • when you use the right chart type you ensure that your data is not presented in a way that leads to incorrect assumptions or skewed results

Teaching others

While most of my school teachers were nice people, there were a few who were nasty. They certainly didn’t make it easy for me to succeed (“you’re parents are probably used to bad news from you”) and looking back it makes me wonder how differently my school and university education would have been had they shown a little more faith in my abilities. Heck, maybe I would have had the confidence to major in statistics and not reject 90% of science subjects because ‘I suck at maths’. Next time…

When I was taught how to teach Tableau to others by the one and only Molly Monsey (she’s a legend!), I learned a number of really important techniques, tips and approaches for helping other succeed when learning Tableau.

Flex your style

Do you know your audience? Your ‘students’? Some people are visual learners, others are auditory learners, while a third category prefers to read and write to learn something and lastly there are also kinesthetic learners who prefer a hands-on, experimental  learning style.

Often you will have a mixture of them in a group, so it is important to – where possible – provide information in a different style for everyone to learn as best as they can. It doesn’t have to be perfect, but being aware of the different styles can help you deliver your message better:

  • you can draw some images on a whiteboard for the visual folks and
  • tell a story for the auditory learners while allowing for some time for the
  • read/write part of the group to take notes and let the information sink in, before you
  • give everyone a hands-on exercise that stimulates the kinesthetic learners and lets everyone apply their new knowledge

By being responsive to the audience you are teaching to, you help them succeed.

Experience = Flexibility

As you get more and more experienced with teaching others, you will find yourself more relaxed about straying from the script, becoming flexible with your examples and will feel much more comfortable going off on a tangent, which can be a good thing.

This means that your classroom participants (be they school children, adult learners or a board of executives) won’t throw you off your course with a simple question that wasn’t ‘in your plan’. Your competence and confidence will naturally grow over time and as you customise your teaching and presentations more and more to suit your audience, they will benefit by getting content and explanations that address their learning needs.

Need to go over the example again? No worries, you know where to make up the ‘lost’ time later. Need to find a different way of explaining a calculation? Let’s all stand up, give people sheets of paper with different parts of the syntax and line them up in random order; then have someone rearrange them until the syntax is valid.

Try different stuff, see what resonates with your group and watch them succeed…

General communication

This is a big one and I was going to leave it until the end, but it does fit here, so let’s roll with it…

How often do you get frustrated with people not understanding you when you communicate face to face, on the phone, by text or email? It’s annoying, isn’t it?

If we want to communicate successfully and help others understand us as well as ensuring we understand them, we need to meet them half-way. At least. Unless we have plenty of time to argue back and forth, then we can just be lazy. But who has that time anyway? And the patience…

Personally, I love helping people and if someone asks me a question, I want to do mquestion.001.jpegy best to give them an answer that adds value and gives them something to work with. But I also consider time a precious commodity and the various activities that fill my day don’t allow me to have lengthy discussions only to find out that my conversation partner and I don’t even talk about the same problem…

If someone asks me for help or has a simple question, I love it when they are very specific in what they want from me: Eva, I need your help. I have problem ABC and what I’m stuck with is how to move from A to B. I have tried Option 1, but it didn’t work. I’m waiting for the result of Option 2, but is there a third way I can try? Do you have any suggestions?

  • the person told me what they want
  • they showed me they’re not being lazy by asking me, but have tried to find a solution and got stuck

This makes it easy for me to figure out how to help them.

If they said: Eva, can you help me get from A to C, I would ask them to think very hard about what they want from me and then ask me again. No, I don’t want to be rude, but such a vague question doesn’t do anyone any favours.

Beyond asking better questions, I think our written content in general can be improved if we make it easier for people to take actions on our suggestions. What I try to do consistently is to include hyperlinks in my blogs to sources or other materials that I think people will benefit from.

When I refer to a person, I add their twitter account or blog, etc. I also make sure that the link opens in a new window, so it’s easy for people to check it out without losing access to the content they’re currently looking at.

Help others help you

If you want to make it easy for others to help you, then

  • be specific in your questions
  • make sure you have a go by yourself first and tell the other person what you’ve tried and what didn’t work (this is the equivalent of sending an error message screenshot to your IT support – they love this stuff, give them all the info you have!)
  • and when they give you advice, make sure you listen and take notes if necessary

Once you’ve solved your problem, let them know how you went, tell them if you were successful and maybe even what specific part of their advice helped you the most.

Help others become ‘better students’

If you’re the one providing help and advice, you can coach people in how to ask better questions or maybe even find the answer themselves.

I love trying different approaches for Makeover Monday. I don’t have all the answers. Even Andy doesn’t. But we have opinions on what we think works and we have experience through our respective jobs that let us make some judgement on datavizzes and their usefulness in a business context.

What we try to do is help people to help themselves, so we give them a nudge or a suggestion and see where they take it.

When people ask me for advice, I don’t want to simply give them an answer which they take as ‘the solution’. Instead I ask them questions: ‘how would your story change if you did xyz?’ or ‘have you tried using a bar chart instead?’ or ‘what if you swapped these two charts around, would that help your flow?’

By doing this I hope to convey a suggestion of how I would approach the next step in their viz work, while leaving them a number of options of where to take it. It is their work, not mine, so they should be in the drivers seat, but I can certainly suggest what I think could help improve their story.

Draw a picture

Early on in my career, about 3 weeks into my first professional job, I learned about the importance of drawing a simple picture.

The more people you have in a room, the easier it is for everyone to talk about something different even though you’re having a single conversation. This becomes very apparent when you talk to people about data, data sources, fields, definitions, etc.sktech.001.jpeg

Instead of wasting hours in meetings, just draw a picture with simple boxes, lines and
circles. Talking about a datasource for your customer contact data? Draw a box, give it a name, specify where that box sits in your overall architecture and let everyone agree that yes, this box gets data feeds from systems A, B and C and then pushes data into the Data Warehouse on an hourly schedule. Or whatever your case may be.

A picture simplifies everything and you can take a photo, print it out or email it to everyone so that next time you don’t even have to waste any more time discussing how the system hangs together.

Make sure your meeting room has a whiteboard. And keep some whiteboard markers in your bag. Draw those boxes and connect the dots…

In summary

So that wraps up part one of this blog.

You probably noticed a theme in that ‘Making the right things easy and the wrong things hard‘ often comes down to preparation, building good habits and creating routines .

Think of it like a map through an obstacle course. There are lots of traps along the way, but it is in your power to create whatever path you like to avoid or overcome those hurdles. Plan out your individual successful path to get from where you are now to where you’d like to be and then go forth and conquer.

As you go about your daily life, also don’t forget to think about how you can put success within easy reach of others. Not everyone needs to get a gold star, but by listening a bit more and tuning into how other people operate, we can help them do the right things and do them better.

If you enjoyed this blog or even if you didn’t, feel free to leave a comment below. If it helped you, I’d love to hear about it.


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