Stalking the why: selling visual analysis

How do you show the value of visual analysis to business people? Dan Murray can show it in demos, but he keeps looking for the “magic dust” that explains in a snap.

He sees visual analysis as a key part of low-cost business intelligence at small- and medium-sized organizations — and he’s set out with evangelical zeal to provide as many of these firms as he can with BI.

A new tactic he’s trying involves a simple chart he carries in his pocket. It’s got just two unmarked axes, horizontal and vertical — and a “blip,” a spike on the time axis. He shows it to people and asks, “What’s the first thing that comes to your mind?”

Everyone sees the blip in their own context. In a bar a block down from a hotel in Atlanta, two guys said, “Patient’s dead.” They were both surgeons. In Dallas, a man said it showed the start of a recession. He was an economist.

Dan hears many answers, but everyone’s first question would be the same: Why? The ability to quickly answer that question, and the many that come along later, is one main difference between visual analysis and simple charts.

He’s surprised at how few people in the many talks he gives around the country know what visual analysis can do. Even among a group of database pros he spoke to recently, who were otherwise full of BI knowledge, few understood.

The first thing everyone sees in a demo of Tableau, the acrobatic visual analysis tool, is how easy users can create reports — and that frightens IT workers who create them for business users. One database pro said after a demo, “About 10 minutes in, I thought my job had disappeared.”

When users roll their own, Dan says, everybody wins. IT has better things to do than write reports. For users, fast reports and real visual analysis means the end of pre-configured questions.

In true visual analysis, each new view shows new “blips,” and each blip prompts new questions: why?, how?, what?, or who? True visual analysis is fast — and it has to be because you make up the questions as you go along.

Dan and I both wonder why visual analysis hasn’t caught on like wildfire. Where has the BI industry missed?

Price is always part of it. To companies used to Excel, Tableau and Spotfire could seem steep. But compared with most tools sold under the BI label, they’re are a bargain.

But mostly, he thinks, it’s that it takes a demonstration to understand the value. “People can’t know what they need until they see it in context,” he says.

Ah, the paradox. That difficulty in explaining the value of visual analysis actually helps explain the value. You don’t have to know what you’re looking at in the beginning. “You just evolve as you work with it,” Dan says. “I often start with a notion but often get a result completely different from what I thought I would.”

Still, I think he’s got something with that “blip” technique.


  1. Ted,
    I worked with Dan in Europe and what I have learned is that Dan is also the guy that likes to start wildfires, because that is more fun than walking an already paved path. Being part of the evolutionary process of “BI on a Budget” is exhilarating to him.
    So I do not agree that the BI Industry has missed, they have always focused on the big companies in respect to reporting requirements. They just did what was asked of them and No More, they were asleep while a new market emerged. As the saying goes “Opportunity Doesn’t Always Knock (Sometimes it Lurks) …. in the background” and again it is proven!
    Now you see that great tools are made available opening up the BI market to a new and large market, Dan saw this opportunity and acted on it. I hope many will also jump on this train..
    Thanks for the article Ted,
    Kind regards from Europe.

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  3. narbeh says:

    Hi Dan,

    Great topic of discussion.

    My Thoughts:

    Those that know what to look for can go about it with less pretty/functional tools (I use R)

    I fooled around with Tableau a while back (just the free trial) and must say I was in love with it. The only thing was, I could not crunch data with it, just visualize it.

    To me it seems strange to visualize it then move into another tool to test your hypothesis (stats perspective)

    The company I work for, I encouraged ppl to download the tool and also play/explore with it – which resulted in needle in a haystack type paralysis.

    Not that I represent a market or anything like that, but there are so many other ways to visually represent complex data (which are free and disclaimer: geared towards mungers) I have found the paid versions rather unnecessary :)

    cheers & an
    awesome Blog :)


  4. Ted:

    excellent discussion :)

    Just a thought to add to narbeh’s comment about ” … needle in a haystack type paralysis.”

    Visual analytics software like Tableau is just another tool. In the hands of an expert a chisel helps to create great sculptures, the rest of us just create big piles of dust.

    It takes experience, vision and an understanding of what really matters to figure out which blips are worth investigating. Before we chisel away at a blip, we need to ask ourselves whether knowing more about it will lead to meaningful change. Like a manager of mine said many years ago: what will we do differently as a result of knowing the answer?

    Therein lies the difficulty in demonstrating the value of visual analysis: many business users still won’t want to spend time learning about data structures and what is under the hood. But for visually oriented folks like me it’s a great way to figure out what business questions to ask.

    All the best,

  5. Pingback: Blips – Explaining the Why, What, When, Where, How Questions « THE DATA rEVOLUTION

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