Analysts and executives alike recognize the stumbling blocks of contemporary analytics: endless columns and rows of data, static and staid charts, disparate reports and delayed information that impede timely decision-making. Gathering the intelligence needed can take weeks and doesn't always answer the questions originally asked. Or, the information arrives too late to be useful.
What would happen if you could visually spot trends, quickly discern hidden weaknesses and share those insights in a powerful way with a click of the mouse? What if you didnt have to scan dozens of rows of data or endless numbers but could visually query, filter, view and interact with data to understand sales trends or manufacturing miscues?
Visualization helps see what you cant always read. As Stephen Few, an expert on business intelligence and information design, says: Visual representations of data take advantage of the unique ability of visual perception to detect meaningful patterns that might otherwise remain hidden. Even highly skilled statisticians recognize when it makes sense to clear their heads of statistics and simply use their eyes to explore data.1
Its a good thing, then, that data visualization is moving beyond the confines of the bar graph, creating vibrant data portraits that today's information producers and consumers crave. Now, analysts can examine information from multiple perspectives and in various forms while incorporating as many variables as needed. In the past, an analyst or any information producer would have had to build and run multiple queries against large data sets to gain insight. Now,visualization technology draws an immediate picture of trends and relationships by allowing visual queries.
Just as visualization streamlines the discovery process, these features produce sleek presentation formats to engage information consumers even in meetings, where graphs are traditionally flat and inflexible. User-friendly graphics and interactivity enable users who are not analysts to use data visualization, making the technology perfect for marketing, business operations, finance and any situation where pictures speak louder than words.
An example will help to imagine the difference between just looking at the data versus looking at the visualization of what the data is trying to convey. Recently, HBO ran a miniseries based on David McCulloughs book about U.S. President John Adams. The book describes his wifes decision to have the family inoculated against smallpox, noting during that era, the vaccine came from someone ill with smallpox, and it was a scary undertaking for the healthy. Its not until you see the miniseries that you understand the graphic nature of 18th century vaccination. In the miniseries, the doctor pulls up to the house with a near-death smallpox victim lying in the cart behind him, eyes glazed over and gripping a crucifix. The doctor lances one of the victims poxes to use for vaccination material. The moving images capture the diseases frightening reality and the harshness of the only known prevention of the time in a way that that cant quite be captured in a book (or in an article like this!).
Visualization, though, cant be done solely for visualizations sake. How often have you seen a graph on a PowerPoint presentation and thought, That isnt telling me anything, or worse, Thats interesting, but it isnt helping me understand why. Strong visualization should simplify insights. It should get you to notice, focus, investigate and act. And it should give your organization a competitive advantage by allowing you to act faster.
Visualization Isnt the Same for Everyone
We all learn in different ways, and years of experience with business intelligence (BI) has taught us that the consumer of information sees things differently then the information explorer or producer. Often, visualization tools are directed at one group or the other. Organizations need to glean and communicate insights in different ways, depending on the groups they are targeting. A business user might need a simple point-and-click option to look at sales data across time and geography for a presentation at a weekly meeting. A statistician might need to produce complex charts that require pulling data and graphics from different sources. Having visual querying and data filters would allow these users to handle unlimited data, rearrange data at will and create interactive tabulations. It is important that visualization take into account both right brain people and left brain people with a solution that allows each group to work in ways they are comfortable with.
Given the amount of data and the power of BI capabilities today, a number of other aspects of visualization addressed including:
Creating high-resolution/high-impact dashboards. A dashboard that says, Sales are up 10 percent in the third quarter is too simplistic for most businesses. Can you provide at a glance the forecast for future sales or product warranty issues two months ahead? Eight months from now? A year? The ability to bring high-impact predictive insights and analytics to the dashboard is critical. Imagine the performance improvement, planning and forecasting improvements that come when data is presented in an easy-to-understand visual format.
- Incorporating data movement. Often, with large amounts of data, insights can be now you see it, now you dont. When the images move, it is easier to see the impact of multiple variable relationships. Data movies anchor the pattern of that trend in a business users mind. For example, in genomics, the ability to plot millions of data points and show the movement over time is critical.
- Adding traditional video. What if you are in charge of airline operations and your dashboard shows a dramatic spike in delayed flights? The ability to check video feeds of the ground operations at your major hubs would invaluably aid the dashboard.
Great BI solutions exist; so do excellent visualization graphics but they typically exist in separate worlds. The richest BI solutions have often been designed with the analyst in mind someone who can discover what the businessperson finds indecipherable. The most expansive visualization tools, meanwhile, are often standalone products that cant always integrate easily or successfully with cutting-edge BI capabilities. They leave the analyst with the capability of creating pretty, but ultimately shallow, graphics.
If your BI solution is giving you more data than your business user can easily consume, if your analysts and information explorers chafe at the simplicity of the visualization tools youve given them, take time to look for solutions that fuse these two elements into a seamless process that benefits both users and producers. Visualization helps you understand trends faster. And faster, data-driven decisions always result in greater marketplace success.
- Stephen Few. "Visualizing Change: An Innovation in Time-Series Analysis." SAS, 2007.
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