Posts tagged knowledge
This week, (May 2012) I had the opportunity to participate in a 3-day Business Intelligence Workshop, hosted by Stephen Few. Without a doubt, he is the data visualization expert with an impressive track record.
For those who don’t know Stephen yet, just launch Google and get overwhelmed by his impressive presence on the web. You’ll find his own website, his books, some software vendor sites (probably Tableau) and also people who are sharing their opinion on Stephen’s views on data visualization.
You’ll probably quickly notice that Stephen isn’t afraid to publicly share his criticism, or positive notes, on the quality of the BI software products of the common large BI software vendors. With this being said, let’s focus on the workshop agenda.
Stephen hadn’t taught his courses in the Netherlands before so I couldn’t miss out on this opportunity, especially since I have a strong focus on data visualization and User Experience design, related to BI. The agenda of the 3-day workshop was based on his books and is described below.
Day 1 – Show Me the Numbers: Table and Graph Design
Day 2 – Information Dashboard Design
In general, all people that are involved in BI or data visualization activities should attend this workshop. No exceptions. Especially people with years of BI experience on their resume should attend the workshop. Many of us have been indoctrinated by software vendors about how a good data visualization should look like.
Sure, we can all build great looking reports and dashboards but that’s not by definition leading to products that really support good decision making. Therefore everybody should invest in three days of their career to attend Stephen’s class to learn and understand all the basics of data visualization. After you know the basics, you can determine to which degree you want to apply them and translate them into the product you develop or use. The point is that from that moment, you’ll be able to make design choices based on your subject knowledge, not on what the customer is asking you.
Remember what Henry Ford said?
“If I’d asked my customers what they wanted, they’d have said a faster horse.
Never aks a customer what he wants the dashboard or report to look like. Ask him where he needs it for and which process it support and why certain details are important. Based on your skill set, including non-technical data visualization skills, you should be able to advise them on how it should look like. Gaining the non-technical data visualization skills therefore is very important.
Stephen mentioned that “Buying MS Powerpoint doesn’t make you a good speaker.” and “Buying MS Office doesn’t make you a good writer”. The same analogy applies for BI software. Buying or a piece of BI software, doesn’t make you a good data analyst or dashboard developer. You need to invest in the basic data visualization skills before you’re able to get the max value out of the products.
During the first two days of training I heard a lot of stuff I already knew because I had already read the first two books. Despite this fact, the interaction and discussion in the group created great value for me, also during these first two days. For me, the third day delivered the greatest value to me.
My view of Stephen
I know there are many people criticizing Stephen’s verdicts of the large software vendors and I must confess that I can understand that. Especially if you’re enthusiastic about the very product being criticized, it can feel a bit like he is criticizing you as a person. But the one and only reason why he is doing this, is because he is not limited by technical product capabilities or customer demands and focusses on the principles of good data visualization and knows there are often more effective solutions. He convinced me that he has no wrong intentions to any person whatsoever. Of course many product vendors are acting like sitting ducks and lure Stephen towards them by producing hilarious marketing slideware including exploding pie charts, tag clouds and other useless stuff.
With this being said, I think it would be better if Stephen would stick to criticizing vendors, instead of involving the faces that fulfill a role at the vendor. This can project a negative shadow on his reputation and personality, of which I think nobody gains anything.
I also brought along a dashboard design I made for one of my customers and he took the time to discuss it in great detail with me. Sure, he had some critique, but ventilated this in a respectful matter. After I explained that the customer wasn’t going to give up some (non-ideal) requirements, he respected that and moved on. He wasn’t ‘looking for a fight’.
In general, my view of Stephen is that he is a very passionate, driven and friendly expert who wants to ‘show the light’ to the more traditional BI audience, purely based on the fact that he sometimes knows more effective ways to bring the message through a data visualization.
The user experience of BI products is really important. There are people who say that Stephen makes ‘boring’ dashboard designs which some people will not like to use. He indeed uses little color and interactivity, but again supported by principles Universities have invested great research in.
Personally, I think there should always be a good balance between Science (Stephens principles) and Art (Visually appealing) and that this balance will result in a better User Experience. By the way, thanks Frodo Jansen for providing this metaphor.Stephen without a doubt shifts more weight onto the side of Science, were others would rather put some more weight on the other side of the scale.
The goal of this blog was to share my experience of the three day workshop. As you’ve read above, I’m very enthusiastic and think that every BI professional should invest three days of his career into this. After the training you are free to reset and adjust your own parameters to the degree of which you want to apply the principles you’ve learned. For me, it opened my eyes that I saw some BI products (e.g. Tableau) that really do some of the thinking for you. This lies in the fact that they’ve been designed from a scientific research perspective, not from a ‘customer wants flashy reports’ perspective.
If you attend the workshop, you’ll be able to save yourself from the pitfalls many BI products have incorporated in them in the form of useless features and clutter. You’ll be able to create BI products that are well balanced on the scale of Science & Art, often regardless of the product itself. That’s what I discovered using SAP BusinessObjects. You can create great products, but first need to learn the basic skills.
Stephen, thanks for sharing your knowledge. It was very inspiring.
Sometimes things are much easier then you’d expect. If you’re searching for information about all kind of new features for the new SAP BusinessObjects BI4 platform, you can stop searching right away, everything you want to know about it, is available straight from the official source: help.sap.com
Here you’ll find tons of stuff you’re probably interested in. This varies from installation manuals, administrator guides and end-user guides. It’s all nice organized and categorized so that you can find everything very easily. Most documents don’t require a SAP Community Network ID so go check it out.