Boris Evelson of Forrester Research has been singing off-key about data visualization recently and he doesn’t seem to realize that he’s tone deaf on this topic. Have you ever noticed that when people become recognized as experts in a particular field, they sometimes think this magically grants them expertise in other fields as well? Expertise requires study and years of practice, practice, practice. I’m particularly sensitive to this tendency when BI generalists give opinions about data visualization without taking time to understand it. This bothers me because people put their trust in “experts” and make costly decisions based on their opinions. My ire was most recently raised when reading statements by Evelson about data visualization as quoted in an InfoWorld article by Chris Kanaracus.
Evelson and I exchanged strong words back in 2009 when he deigned to list the features of “advanced data visualization” in his blog. His list was nonsense and I said so. Long after the dust settled, Evelson contacted me to ask if I’d be willing to advise him on matters related to data visualization. He should have asked my advice before his interview with Kanaracus.
Here’s the section of the article “Tableau BI visualization tools with user-centric design” (InfoWorld, January 18, 2012) that cites Evelson’s opinion:
Until the in-memory addition, Tableau wasn’t necessarily something a company already invested in a BI platform from SAP or Oracle would need, according to Forrester Research vice president Boris Evelson. “These days all of the other vendors have perfectly fine data visualization capabilities,” he said. “Now they let you do this in-memory, which very often is what the business users want. They don’t want to be restricted to the underlying database structure.”
At the same time, Tableau and its competitors need to further differentiate themselves. Microsoft is pushing PowerPivot as an extension of Excel with not much of a learning curve, while Spotfire features integration with Tibco’s middleware stack and offers advanced analytic capabilities, he said.
However, “whatever [Tableau] is doing, they’re doing it right,” as Forrester client interest in the company has jumped significantly of late, Evelson added.
I can imagine the mixed feelings of Tableau’s leaders when reading Evelson’s words: grateful he said that “they’re doing it right” but cringing to have these words spoken by someone who doesn’t actually understand what they’re doing and what makes it right.
Tableau did not suddenly become relevant to organizations with big BI product stacks when they introduced in-memory data handling. All along, these organizations have needed what good data visualization vendors like Tableau and their kin have been providing—effective ways to explore and analyze data—because the big BI vendors haven’t provided it and still don’t, which brings us to Evelson’s most naïve and potentially harmful statement: “These days all of the other vendors have perfectly fine data visualization capabilities.” After I read this, my wife mistook my convulsions as a seizure. Evelson’s statement couldn’t be more wrong. To date, none of the big BI software companies support data visualization in a manner that is “perfectly fine” or even reasonably adequate. They allow you to view data in graphs, but do so in embarrassingly inadequate ways. This inadequacy is especially apparent when we narrow our focus to exploratory data analysis, which requires meaningful and rapid interaction with data. Neither PowerPivot from Microsoft, Business Objects Explorer, nor any of the other attempts that I’ve seen by big BI vendors to enable exploratory data analysis have advanced past kindergarten. To draw on my Biblical roots for a moment, good visual analysis products such as Tableau, Tibco Spotfire, and SAS JMP lead people who have previously stumbled around in the dark using clunky BI products to exclaim “I was blind but now I see.”
Finally, back to our friend Boris Evelson. The best experts in any field are the people who started out as and continue to be the best students. When we stop being students, our expertise ceases to grow. When people recognize you as an expert and begin to hang on your every word adoringly, it’s tempting to wear that mantle with pride, refusing to ever again assume the role of student. If Evelson wants to express useful opinions about data visualization, he’s got some learnin’ to do. This is true of many BI thought leaders. Until then, they should stick to what they know.