The debate over “useful” visualization

That winery of mid-’60s TV fame Italian Swiss Colony and its mascot “that little old winemaker, me” often seems to apply in surprising places.

A few weeks ago at a visualization conference, the business intelligence community’s leader in visualization design, Stephen Few, told the room full of dedicated visualizers to be more useful. Some took exception.

In the gentlemanly discourse going on right now within earshot of this blog, they’ve been discussing definitions. What, for example, is “useful”?

Stephen, of whom I should disclose my long-time admiration, responds to criticism from Mike Danziger that his advice is slightly abrasive. Mike had complained that Stephen dismisses such attempts as the Ambient Orb without trying to understand it.

Mike’s got a point. They’re both right. The Ambient Orb is silly, but it still deserves a place on the visualization spectrum-for silly uses. It has no place in business, but so what?

A serious winemaker doesn’t try to understand jug wine. He just spits. Even so, jug wine has its place.

That mid-20th Century jug wine Italian Swiss Colony didn’t even try to be good. But, according to a California wine-industry insider I talked to in 1980, it did pave the way for good wine in the American marketplace.

That insider explained to me that back when wine was still perceived as elite, Italian Swiss Colony applied marketing muscle to break out into a broad middle class market. It didn’t matter that it wasn’t great, it just got people trying it. Many of them liked it enough to try better and better wine, and today California produces some of the world’s best. “That little old winemaker, me” had started a movement.

The trick will be to provide visualization that doesn’t turn off future users. If too many say, “Ick! That’s visualization? I don’t need it!” it could suffer.

If the Ambient Orb had been my only introduction to visualization, I’m not sure I’d have looked any further. I do look further because I saw better efforts first.

The data industry thrives on conversation. Please submit a comment.

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