On two occasions several years ago I was asked by business intelligence publications to review a software product named FYI Visual. On both occasions I gladly accepted because people needed to be warned about it. FYI Visual was a zombie in the sense that, when it was born from the imagination of its creator, a medical doctor, it was lifeless, without substance or worth, animated only by his force of will and wallet. It was a horrible product, completely bereft of usefulness because it was built on an erroneous foundation. Eventually, the product ceased to exist, and I breathed a sigh of relief. Yesterday, however, I read an article by a fellow named Ben Kerschberg, a contributor to Forbe’s website, that promoted a brand new product, which appears to be a reanimated version of FYI Visual named VisualCue. This new product is fundamentally based on the same flawed foundation as its predecessor.
Why was a contributor to Forbe’s promoting the walking dead? Not because Kerschberg has expertly reviewed the product and found it worthy. Kerschberg is an attorney, with no expertise whatsoever in data visualization. It’s clear from some of Kerschberg’s statements that he was merely parroting promotional material that was provided by VisualCue. For instance, Kerschberg referred to “bar charts,…treemaps, Gannt charts, and scatter plots” as “subpar visualizations… that fail to serve their main purpose of communicating information.” This language is reminiscent of statements previously made by the founder of FYI Visual. What is VisualCue’s answer to these subpar visualizations? “Interactive Visualization,” which Kerschberg says is a term that was coined by Gartner. First of all, Gartner did not coin this term. It has been in use since long before data visualization was on Gartner’s radar. Anyone familiar with the field knows that interactive visualization has been around since the early days of computer graphics. Regarding interactive visualization, Kerschberg makes the following claim, no doubt lifted directly from VisualCue’s absurd promotional content: “Interactive Visualization implies the use of heat maps, geographic maps, link charts, and a broad spectrum of special purpose visualizations that surround processes that are inextricably linked to an underlying analytics.” Huh? Really? This is news to those of us who have worked in the field for many years. And what does VisualCue’s version of interactive visualization look like? Now, for your viewing pleasure, I present and example of their amazing innovation:
One of these collections of icons (binoculars, clock, boat, etc.) is called a tile. You wouldn’t ordinarily use a single tile, but an entire screen full of them, arranged as a mosaic, such as the following example:
A screen full of these cute icons would certainly serve as an effective substitute for “subpar” bar charts, tree maps, scatter plots, and the like, if you wanted to overwhelm viewers’ senses with utter nonsense. Obviously, these heat map colored icons do not serve the same purpose as quantitative graphs such a bar charts and scatter plots. In fact, there is no purpose for which this display would provide a good solution.
FYI Visual, the predecessor of VisualCue, used the same basic approach except that its icons were all rectangles and an odd combination of colors and shapes served the purpose of the heatmap colors. What the new product calls tiles the old product called KEGS and what the new product calls a mosaic arrangement of tiles the original product called a KEGSET. Other than the names, which are now friendlier, it appears that little else has changed. If you’re interested, you can read one of my reviews of the old product in the article “FYI Visual: The Story of a Product that was Built on a Fault.”
If this zombie stumbles into your neighborhood, I think the best way to protect yourself against it is to laugh hysterically. If we start laughing now and refuse to cease, we’ll chase this zombie back into the darkness from which it emerged before any organization wastes money purchasing it.
By promoting this software, Kerschberg is being irresponsible. By allowing people like Kerschberg to write about things they don’t understand, Forbes is demonstrating a complete lack of respect for its readers. Shame on them.