There Are No Shortcuts to a Bright Future

I began this first workday of 2016 as usual, by walking my dogs and then reading the news while sipping coffee and eating a bowl of fruit. The world that I found in the news this morning is filled with the same tragedies that have assaulted us for years, but it was the hopeful bits that bothered me most. Hope is marketed to us today in the form of “Technology,” with a capital “T.” While it is certainly true that “technologies” with a small “t” will be needed to avert disaster and build a brighter future, our current emphasis on technologies independent of human ability, conscience, and hard work is a dangerous drug. If Karl Marx were alive today, he might write: “Technology is the opiate of the masses.”

One of the news articles that caught my attention this morning was “Storytelling By the Numbers: How to Make Visualizing Data Easy.” In this insipid marketing piece the following words were quoted:

We’re seeing more efforts to take the complexity out of data calculations, structuring, analytics and visualizations…Soon, we’ll all be…empowered with data-processing capabilities to elevate us out the world of educated guessery and [into] the heavenly realm of informed decision and probability based predictions. [Hamish McKenzie of the product company Silk]

What the writer failed to mention is that McKenzie wrote these words in 2013 and Silk has not yet delivered this “heavenly realm of informed decision and probability based predictions.” I have no idea if Silk is a decent product, but I immediately distrust any company that markets its wares with the false promises of a snake-oil salesman.

At the beginning of this new year, I’m more convinced than ever that we must stop believing in magical solutions and get down to the hard work of real problem solving. This will require skill, which leads to my next concern: most data visualization advocates who have emerged in recent years promote superficial understanding and skills. Many recent books and articles about data visualization barely scratch the surface, promoting “data visualization lite.” They usually teach a concise set of simple guidelines that don’t provide a solid foundation for skilled work. The abbreviated form of communication (and thinking) that PowerPoint began to promote 25 years ago and Twitter further endorsed beginning 10 years ago has had an effect on this new generation of thought leaders. What they teach is riddled with inconsistencies, revealing a level of understanding that is shallow. This drives me nuts, because I want data visualization to flourish in the future, but this will require new generations that extend the work rather than reducing it to pithy bullet points. A brief TED Talk may be enough to inspire, but it is not a venue for learning. Real learning—real skills development—takes thoughtful study and years of practice.

Later this month I’ll be teaching my new Advanced Dashboard Design workshop for the second time in the United States. Even though I’ve made the requirements for attending this advanced workshop clear—you must have read Information Dashboard Design and developed at least one dashboard based on its principles to be eligible—I have turned down several applicants who couldn’t demonstrate this level of skill with a reasonably well-designed dashboard. Some of them hadn’t actually read the book. This is a symptom of the same problem that I described above. People think they can develop skills using shortcuts. They can’t. I’d rather teach an advanced workshop with only a handful of people than earn greater revenues trying to corral people at widely ranging levels of experience to work together, holding back the students who are truly skilled. I had a similar experience when I taught in the MBA program at the University of California, Berkeley. Some of my students managed to get into this program without the required level of understanding. When I didn’t give them the high grades that they expected, they were shocked and angry. I felt similarly. I was shocked and angry that U.C. Berkeley admitted these students into the program.

I know that, to those of you who follow my work, I must sound like a broken record, making the same basic points over and over. “Slow down, take the time that’s necessary, think thoroughly, learn deeply, develop useful skills.” Trust me when I say that I find the repetition annoying as well. I’d like to move past this fundamental guidance to spend more of my time pursuing more advanced topics, but I keep getting dragged back into the basics because that’s where most people dwell, whether they know it or not.

If you want to help the world by doing the work of data sensemaking, set your sights high. Make this your New Year’s resolution. Begin by learning the basics and learning them thoroughly. Don’t learn a tiny bit and immediately start writing a blog to distribute mal-developed insights to a gullible world. Know, however, that the path of thorough preparation will not necessarily produce the recognition that your eventual good work will deserve. If recognition is more important to you than the personal satisfaction that comes with good work, go ahead and begin that blog immediately. There’s a world out there longing for more hype and drivel—more of the fast food that nourishes technological solutionism. If you want the fulfillment that comes with good work, which is essential to a good life, choose the road less travelled. Whether the world knows it or not, that’s path you must take to make the world better.

Take care,


4 Comments on “There Are No Shortcuts to a Bright Future”

By James. January 4th, 2016 at 7:52 pm

I love your work, but you’ve anticipated correctly that we would much more enjoy reading reminders of good design principles vs criticisms of others’ shoddy work and poor salesmanship. I’m the VP of IT of a Fortune 500 company and I receive 40-50 stupid sales pitches with false promises a day through email. The problems you describe aren’t limited to good visual design. You won’t stop this nonsense but you can fill the world full of strong advice to share with others nuggets of your insights. Thanks for doing the good work you do.

By Or Shoham. January 5th, 2016 at 4:50 am

If Karl Marx were alive today, he would likely *tweet* “Technology is the opi8 of the masses #amazing #like lol”.

I’m looking forward to another year of content – particularly said advanced topics. I’m also now tempted to see if any quality material exists on engaging those who expect shortcuts, without taking shortcuts. If anyone has collected any such resources, I’d love some references.

By Bella Gotie. January 5th, 2016 at 4:57 am

“Сonstant dropping wears away a stone!”

By Paul S.. January 6th, 2016 at 11:57 am

Thank you for this insight and challenge.

I work for a Fortune 50 company and am constantly called upon to fix dashboards or data presentations that are “splashy” but lacking relevant information. When I am handed a splashy dashboard for “further analysis” and I reduce it down to a relevant, statistically accurate and basic format the reaction goes something like, “This looks simplistic…oh wow…this is great information!” I really enjoy watching those “light bulb” moments as people see information in a different and meaningful format!

To reinforce your points in this article, I currently work in an operations department where anyone that can write a formula in Excel is considered a “data expert” so there is no shortage of “analysis” floating around that I constantly need to shovel, correct and put into proper perspective. It provides me with a high level of job security and many opportunities to be a “rock star” to some and a “pain in the $%&” to others.

I have undergraduate degrees in Applied Mathematics and Statistics, a recently completed Masters Degree in Business Analytics and 30 years of analytical experience. However, I am always seeking new and different ways to do the hard work of data analysis that provides information to those with a desire to understand and, most important, use. I empathize with your quest to bring data sensemaking to a hungry world.

I enjoyed your 2014 basic workshops in Portland and look forward to attending your Signal workshop this month and gaining more insight into “separating the signal from the noise” (Yes, I have read the book). Keep fighting the good fight.

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