Stories that tell the bigger story

In a good example of “show, don’t tell,” Tableau Software’s weblog demonstrates the power of its product with a story: how rich, middle-income and poor voters compare in liberal, conservative and battleground states. The political story is awkward to tell in words, but it’s easy in pictures. Pictures that tell stories is what Tableau’s all about.

Conventional software marketers would have beat the drum like high school cheerleaders: Faster! Better! Bigger! They would have also offered a demo with screenshots flipping by showing data that means nothing to you.

Tableau’s approach is subtle. In “More can be simpler when telling data stories,” Tableau director of visual analysis Jock Mackinlay critiques a chart from Andrew Gelman’s new book, Red State, Blue State, Rich State, Poor State. The obvious story is, of course, the political one. In a chart borrowed from the book, you see that poor voters have similar opinions on social and economic issues whether they’re in a mostly conservative, liberal or battleground state. Rich voters are much different from each other, and middle income voters are the most disparate of all.

I start playing with theories. What is it about poor voters that makes them align like this? What makes the rich voters different from each other? The important thing is not my theories but that I got involved with the story.

Then Jock offers more: He says he can improve the chart. The minute I wonder how he might do it, I’m into the next story. He ponders, “Another way to add more to this data view is to back it with the raw data so that I could add to the story by creating new views. In particular, this view causes me to wonder what would happen if there is a shift in the relative importance of social and economic issues. Are there red and blue states that might turn into battleground states because they contain a large percentage of poor voters?”

What stories does his improved chart tell? Just download and open it in Tableau. And if you don’t yet have Tableau on your desktop, it’s always available for a free tryout. In any case, he just gave you a demo of visual analysis that actually caught your attention.

Other products might not lend themselves to this approach, but many would with a little creativity. I just don’t understand why more software marketers don’t try it.

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

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