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.