A Preview of Tableau 9: Gauges?!

If George Peck has his way (Peck wrote the only authorized book about Tableau 8 and has also served as the featured speaker in many of the Tableau 8 Roadshow events), the next version of Tableau will add flashy gauges to its library of charts. Here are his thoughts on the matter, as recorded in the latest newsletter from Peck’s consultancy The Ablaze Group:

Why Tableau Should Add a Gauge to Version 9

We’re wrapping up the Tableau 8 Roadshow (having now been shut out of two cities, including our own hometown of Denver, by airport weather cancellations). Tableau 8 is available and is enjoying rave reviews. And, while I was just getting around to fully digesting the old Tableau controversy about removing WikiLeaks visualizations, I just now heard about the new one that erupted when Stephen Few dissed Tableau about version 8. Despite my behind-the-time-ness, I simply must offer a contrast to Mr. Few’s thoughts.

There’s a place for visualization “experts.” Varying points of view are good. Educated opinions on visual best practices contribute to improved toolsets. But, can we all remember that there’s not any one person who knows all, or sees all, about any particular topic? My philosophy about “informed opinions,” including mine, is “Put this in your bucket of thoughts, shake or stir thoroughly, and benefit from the mix.” With this spirit of “mix of opinions” in mind, add the following to your bucket and shake it up.

Tableau should add a gauge mark type to Version 9.

We had an existing SAP BusinessObjects customer (Stephen Few’s never-ending scorn for this product is legendary) who approached us a while back inquiring about Tableau. “Our existing BI system has some issues. Some parts of it are slow and difficult to maintain. Can you give us an idea of where Tableau might improve this?” My reply was, “Sure… let me know where you have particular issues — where are your most painful areas?” But, before we could even begin to address these basic salient points, the prospect took it upon themselves to download a Tableau demo and begin to explore the product. The first follow-up was almost immediate; “How do I create a gauge in Tableau?”

I tried to move the customer back to the initial issues that had, theoretically, been the impetus for their initial inquiry. “Well, we can explore that. But, rather than just trying to mirror your current visuals, can we talk about where you have problems? Maybe there’s a better way, such as use of a bullet chart, to analyze those types of metrics. When can we talk?” The response, “Yeah, let me see when I can work a call into my schedule. But, for now, can you tell me how to create a gauge in Tableau?” I responded with a fairly extensive comparison of gauges versus bullet charts to analyze actual/goal data (this particular customer’s application of gauges). The next, final response: “Sorry, Tableau isn’t right for us.”

Yes, we can talk all day about this customer’s lack of insight, inability/unwillingness to look at anything other than “the way we’ve always done things,” and their refusal to sit down for even a basic discussion of their issues. In other words, this was a fairly normal situation (so, I’m admittedly now adopting the Stephen Few approach of “A few insults never hurt anybody”). In the final evaluation, Tableau’s lack of this ubiquitous mark type immediately prevented this (admittedly uninformed) prospect from discovering the beautiful, blazingly fast, tool that’s Tableau. Once they would have gotten over their gauge-itis, they too would have come on board.

Here’s the bottom line (expressed with an appropriate metaphor relating to New York Mayor Bloomberg’s recent come-uppance from a State Supreme Court): It’s not Tableau’s place to keep the 18 ounce sugary drink off the Mark Type Cafe menu. Visualization Seat Belts may help at the time of the Data Discovery collision, but Stephen Few simply doesn’t have the authority to mandate self-protection by all BI passengers.

Even if they choose to add the following confirmation dialog:

Tableau should offer a gauge in their next major release.

So many wise lessons can be found in this short article. Here’s what I’ve learned from Mr. Peck:

  1. “There’s a place for visualization ‘experts.’” Thank God for this. Previously, I had my doubts. (I have the impression, however, that my place, according to Peck, is in one of the rings of Dante’s Inferno.)
  2. To my great disappointment, I have now discovered that I do not know all or see all. At best, I must be satisfied with the status of semi-omniscient demigod.
  3. All opinions are of equal value. We needn’t vet them, but should just put them all in a hat, shake them up, and then…well I don’t actually know what we’re supposed to do with them next, but somehow we will “benefit from the mix.”
  4. Software vendors should give customers what they want, even when those things don’t work and are potentially harmful. If you give your customers crap, they will eventually figure out that it’s crap and reject it in favor of the other stuff that you gave them that isn’t crap.
  5. Teaching data visualization best practices is an attempt to make it illegal for people to do otherwise. Apparently, I don’t have the right to make people do what I want. Damn! Once again my divine self-image has been dismissed as an illusion.
  6. Visualizing data ineffectively isn’t such a big deal. It’s a lot like using a dirty word. At worst you might offend some prickly data Nazi like me, so go right ahead and do your worst.

You might think that I shouldn’t need to be taught these same lessons over and over again. How many times have I been told that I should shut up and stop caring about visualizing data in ways that actually work? Too many times to count. Chances are, I’ll never learn. I suspect that I will once again toss these lessons into that round object (no, not a hat) that keeps my life uncluttered by nonsense.

As Peck so graciously concedes, everyone has the right to an opinion, even pesky “informed opinions,” and he certainly has a right to his. What concerns me, however, is the degree to which his opinion reflects the perspective of Tableau. I recently learned that when my review of Tableau 8 was published, Tableau employees were forbidden from responding publicly. That makes this brief article by Peck the closest thing to a public response from Tableau that I’ve received.

Not all that long ago, I would have said that George Peck, someone who has supported SAP BusinessObjects for many years and continues to do so today, couldn’t possibly represent the position of Tableau. Now, I’m no longer sure. Unless the ban at Tableau on responding to me publicly is perpetual, I’d love to find out to what extent Tableau is still committed to best practices, which is what once made the product great and unique. Tableau’s customers, especially those who fell in love with the product because it avoided the silly stuff and made it easy to derive real value from data, deserve to know if Tableau has changed course. Who is calling the shots at Tableau these days: sales and marketing, from a near-term perspective of the quick win, or the information visualization experts such as Chris Stolte, Pat Hanrahan, and Jock Mackinlay who built the product with a clear vision rooted in best practices?

Take care,

21 Comments on “A Preview of Tableau 9: Gauges?!”


By Larry Keller. May 20th, 2013 at 1:21 pm

What a great source for creativity - an SAP client requesting gauges. This is why SAP stood for Slow and Painful or Stop and Pray. Mr. Peck appears to be going down the path where all “chartoonists” are drawn. Maybe he will suggest sound effects with a speedometer if a sales team is over goal. Aha - version 9.0 with audio!

By Neil Barrett. May 21st, 2013 at 4:00 am

I have some sympathy with Tableau, but hope it doesn’t stray too far from the path, providing only fluff and no content. They have had something of a hard sell as many people are overawed by pretty and/or clever graphics (like gauges) that look the business, but much less so by elegant design (which to many looks boring).

If Tableau wants to compete in this increasingly busy space, it will need to find hooks amongst a broader market. They can either sell good visualisation software (which is hard — who in procurement cares?) or they can sell visualisation software that has good bits (easier). At least the latter provides good tools to more people.

I’m still waiting for the killer visualisation tool that allows many and varied visualisations to be elegantly presented… I’d love to see a comparison of existing vendors against the use cases for the 30 most useful graphical displays (e.g. Tufte’s scatterplot that encodes the quartiles in the axes, suitably amended to specify jittering and labeling, etc.). At least that’d give the buggers something useful to strive for.

By jlbriggs. May 21st, 2013 at 7:35 am

You find this attitude in basically any field when it comes to best practices, but it seems particularly prevalent in the areas of design.

Whether you are talking about data visualization, graphic design, web design/development, etc.

It’s sad and frustrating, and definitely more so when a company like Tableau starts playing that game.

By Kris Erickson. May 21st, 2013 at 1:06 pm

Tableau getting gauges? I think Robert Mondavi Wineries should begin selling 2 liter high-fructose-corn-syrups laden sodas. Hey they’re in the beverage industry after all right?

By Nigel Brownjohn. May 23rd, 2013 at 9:44 am

I wonder whether the pressure of being a public company will see an even stronger shift to Sales and Marketing driven product and strategy.

By Andrew. May 23rd, 2013 at 2:44 pm

“All opinions are not equal. Some are a very great deal more robust, sophisticated and well supported in logic and argument than others.”
– Douglas Adams

By Stacey Barr. May 24th, 2013 at 8:40 pm

Giving customers what they want but don’t need, and that will increase their risks of making more wrong decisions, cannot be considered an ethical means to profit. Customers certainly need buy-in before they will change to better practices, but that change can’t happen without a deliberate approach to accept, learn and adopt those better practices.

By Dimitri. May 26th, 2013 at 6:45 pm

Let’s accept for a moment that it is OK to add cute but dysfunctional graphs to a DataViz tool because important but uninformed customers want them. I haven’t seen a software product yet that did not suffer from being stuffed with tons of features of questionable usefulness, just in case someone might need them. These things get in the way, clutter the otherwise clean interface, add complexity, etc. In other words, there is a price to pay.
Many of my colleagues are happy to follow best DataViz practices, but don’t have time or inclination to read Stephen’s books, let alone Tufte’s seminal works. Well, with Tableau you don’t have to - it guides you and helps you along the way to come up with what works (you can still screw up, but it is much harder).

Good advice for “tossing opinions in the thought basket”, etc. - next time I visit a doctor, I’ll also ask for opinion: my neighbour, his aunt, her astrologist and my 7 year old, toss their opinions into my bucket of thoughts and benefit from the mix. Might save on prescription drugs.

By Chris Gerrard. May 27th, 2013 at 8:47 am

It’s clear that George Peck aligns himself with the maximum profit opportunity. Advocating that Tableau adopt gauges simply because they’re popular among people accustomed to the nonsense produced with Bad BI tools and practices is shallow and mercenary pandering.

On the other hand, perhaps it’s time to knock the pedestal out from under Tableau. Tableau started out with a clean, clear product that embodied the principles of fast, nimble data analysis, including the front-rank positioning of highly effective visualizations. In that space it was a true innovator, and the best product in its space. It still remains the best product in that space. But it’s moved on from that space, and even ignored product improvements it should have made in it in favor of expanding its functional horizons and becoming more appealing to corporate interests and the public market.

It’s pretty clear that Tableau’s motives have for quite some time been in establishing itself as a player in the BI marketplace so that it could float an IPO and achieve it’s true market potential.

Underneath the covers Tableau always fancied itself an enterprise company, with a clear intention to play with the big boys. From its marketing and sales model, with its emphasis on “penetrating” accounts, to its wooing the Gartners and Forresters, to its cannibalization of the small practitioners who were instrumental in introducing and fostering the adoption of Tableau in multiple organizations.

Looking at the product’s life cycle is informative. Its initial products, although rough around the edges, showed a clear, concise design that brought the data analysis operations to the UI surface, with direct connections between user actions and high quality visualizations of the data-dimensions and measures-being manipulated.

Since that initial unveiling, the product has suffered from the lack of coherent design behind the new features as they’ve been introduced. Stephen’s written about the highly confused property-sheet formatting implementation; this has been and remains a huge usability impediment. Similarly, global filters were naively implemented, parameters were a stop-gap largely useful to accommodate cross-data source needs, actions intrinsically bound navigation and filtering into atomic operations when each needed to be separate. I could go on, but would it make any difference?

There are plenty of signals indicating Tableau’s goals and intentions. Some of them Stephen has already covered, here’s one post-IPO from the Motley Fool:

“In fact, CEO Christian Chabot said that the IPO was done mainly to raise awareness about the company’s market potential, making the past few days for Tableau all the more successful.

Now what: Given the big data tailwinds working in its favor, Tableau is certainly worth looking into. “Business technology companies have more staying power over the long-term and are less susceptible to fashionable trends than [business to consumer] companies,” Chabot said in an interview with Forbes.”

Given this, and other similar statements by Tableau, it’s pretty clear that Tableau is looking to become a Big BI company, and all that means, which as we seem to be seeing, becoming what corporate America will buy, not what they need.

What’s one to do? I will continue to work with my clients to use Tableau to their advantage, but now after seven years of using Tableau I’m keeping a weather eye open for the new products that are what it could have been.

By Atif Abdul Rahman. May 27th, 2013 at 10:56 pm

“Tableau helps people see and understand their data.”.
How can they even think (if at all) of adding gauges? Placebo’s don’t cure patients…

By Neil Barrett. May 30th, 2013 at 3:52 am

To Atif: but placebos help people to feel better. And gauges could help people feel like they’re managing. The visualisation community is at a bit of an empirical loss, though, as I’ve never seen anyone evidence that managers make better decisions as a result of better data. There are many arguments that one type of display is clearer, allows more rapid processing, fewer errors, etc.. But this isn’t the same as showing it is more effective.

By Stephen Few. May 30th, 2013 at 7:10 am

Neil,

Are you really questioning whether people make better decisions when they are better informed?

By Sam B. June 4th, 2013 at 10:45 pm

@Chris - You are SPOT ON with your observation.. ” cannibalization of the small practitioners who were instrumental in introducing and fostering the adoption of Tableau in multiple organizations.”

Tableau seems to be loosing its passionate followers and I know of a couple of partners who walked away from Tableau this year.

By John Munoz. June 10th, 2013 at 6:07 pm

I have been pushing for the company I work for to purchase Tableau’s unlimited 8 core server license. I was concerned when I saw V8 and I have been hoping that Tableau gets back on track and listens to its users for ideas on what to implement for version 9. Even with the backward steps in V8, I still think Tableau is the best enterprise reporting tool out there, at the pricepoint.

There is not 1 post in the Tableau idea forum at http://community.tableausoftware.com/community/ideasfor gauges. I suspect it’ll stay that way.

I’m going to check in with my account rep. tomorrow to see if I can get anything regarding Tableau’s roadmap for V9 and maybe make her swear that gauges won’t be in V9.

By John. June 29th, 2013 at 4:41 pm

As a recent evaluator of Tableau I must disagree with some of the comments above. Gauges and 3D are a bad idea but frankly the people paying the bills where I work, and I suspect where you’ll work, like pretty pictures in addition to good data. Office 2013 and Reporting Services and QlikView all are better in this regard…

By Stephen Few. June 29th, 2013 at 5:40 pm

John,

So you’re arguing that a software vendor should provide features that are “bad”? In what sense are bad features ever be useful? People want a lot of things that aren’t good for them. The “people paying the bills” are rarely in a position to evaluate the merits of analytics’ products. They’re can waste their money investing in “pretty pictures”, but I’ve chosen to only provide people with products and services that actually support their needs. Good software vendors do the same. In the end, only those vendors that support the needs of their customers, not their unexamined desires, will survive. Vendors that provide bad products that are ineffective do not keep their customers happy for long.

By David. July 17th, 2013 at 9:45 am

Visiting after a long while, and just read the review (and discussion!) of T8. There is a place for fundamentalism of nearly every stripe, though in my mind it ought to remain a private one. No matter the endeavor, eventually strong ideals must bend to reality. When tableau was small, it was easier to be ‘true to the cause’, but with time more barnacles accrue — that is simply the way of the world. Relax everybody, and try not to be so strident.

By Stephen Few. July 17th, 2013 at 10:02 am

David,

I was once a fundamentalist minister. I was raised in a fundamentalist church and took it very seriously when I was young, but in my early 20s I left the church when the beliefs that I was taught no longer aligned with my experience of the world. I went on to study fundamentalist belief systems as an academic, and understand them from the perspective of psychology and sociology. As someone who understands fundamentalism, I can assure you that my approach to data visualization is not an expression of fundamentalism. Rather, it is based on a commitment to science (figure out what really works based on evidence and do it).

I don’t subscribe to your perspective that we should accept what is without striving to make it better. I suspect that there are things in your life about which you choose to take a stand rather than relaxing and accepting whatever comes. Perhaps what we do with data doesn’t fall into that category for you, but it does for me. I’ve chosen to remain vigilant. I think it matters.

By Toby. August 15th, 2013 at 11:24 am

John said, “…Office 2013 and Reporting Services and QlikView all are better in this regard…”
Better? I’d argue they are weaker.

Andrew, very nice quote and so true.

George calls the gauge chart ubiquitous. I haven’t found this to be true. My mere mortal opinion. The classic, air-cooled VW Bug, now THAT is ubiquitous. As much as I love them I certainly don’t think all other automanufacturers should include an inexpensive, rear mounted air-cooled four-cylinder engine, with only a radio and heat as comfort options, in their product line-up in hopes they will be as successful as VW was because, you know, they are everywhere.

By David B. August 16th, 2013 at 4:52 am

If Steve Jobs made Tableau, there would never be a gauge. The Cult of Jobs are not always correct but this is a classic example of people wanting what they already had, just different. But what they really need is someting else.

People wanted faster horses, they were given the T-Ford.
People wanted good buttons and battery life, they got the iPhone.

By Brandon. September 8th, 2013 at 8:00 pm

I’d appreciate if Tableau spent time on enhancements which made the non-visualization components of the product more robust, since I’m happy with the few fundamental visualizations and could do without the fluff.

Tableau Online leaves MUCH to be desired (I can draw better vector graphics with a box of crayons). I’ve done some assessments lately and some up-and-coming players in this realm may well give Tableau a kick in the pants if they don’t re-focus their priority list. While Tableau is contemplating gauges the likes of companies like Domo are tackling this “Cloud BI” concept and it looks pretty damn good so far, I must say.

Its a pretty exciting time to be part of the latest “data movement”, especially in visualization.