Bad software comes from bad business models

On several occasions I’ve taught the principles and practices of effective data visualization to people whose job it is to sell business intelligence software—sometimes for the entire sales team of a business intelligence vendor, but more often for mixed audiences that included a few salespeople among others. In such situations, I can always count on a particular issue to arise: “Yes, we know that much of what our products do and many of the features that we promote don’t work (silly eye candy and the like), but we include and promote them because they sell. We have no choice.” When I’m in the room with these folks whose livelihood is affected by this dilemma, empathy prompts me to explain how they can educate customers during the sales process to recognize the silly stuff for what it really is and thereby nudge customers in the direction of their own best interests. I’m beginning to realize, however, that this effort rarely, if ever, makes a difference. Some businesses are built on a model that will always favor immediate sales revenues over effective products, and nothing that I say to salespeople will change this.

Any business that measures its success by current sales revenues or profits without regard for the effectiveness of their products will go for the silly stuff every time. I could argue that this is a poor business model because it’s short-sighted and doomed to fail, eventually resulting in declining revenues, but what’s the point? Businesses built on this model lack the foresight to appreciate the greater intelligence of long-term planning around products and services that effectively address the real needs of people. I believe the root problem that belies such business practices is not strategic short-sightedness or a myopic focus on sales—these are symptoms of a deeper, more fundamental problem. I believe that it’s wrong to build a business on self-interest alone.

In the midst of the current presidential campaign, we’re reminded daily of how willingly and shamelessly politicians do whatever it takes to get elected. I’m embarrassed to live in a country that puts up with this. Yes, it’s true that most other countries are just as bad and many are worse, but that’s no excuse. We could be so much better. Our country could function so much more intelligently and morally. How did we come to expect so little of ourselves?

At least when politicians twist the truth and manipulate voters to get into office, however, they probably believe they’re doing it for the good of the country. Sarah Palin can say that she wasn’t really clueless when Katie Couric asked those questions that she couldn’t answer, she was just being “flippant.” Despite being a good Christian who was taught to value the truth, she probably believes that God makes exceptions when the stakes are this high—the ends trump the means. (Yeah, I know that Palin isn’t the only candidate twisting the truth, but her acts are so transparent, they’re especially insulting.) Whereas politicians rationalize their behavior based on the genuine belief that they’re better for the country, businesses that sell bad products are simply out for themselves. When I step back and think about those discussions that I’ve had with salespeople who promote software features that don’t work because that’s what it takes to sell their products, I’m affronted by the fundamental absurdity of this exchange. How did we come to find it acceptable to convince people to pay money for things that we know don’t work? How does “because this is what it takes to sell our product” excuse the fundamental wrongness of this end?

I’m in the business of helping people use information effectively. I don’t tolerate anything that undermines this end. I believe that business intelligence software vendors owe it to their customers to do business in this way as well. When I evaluate a a product as ineffective, I respect vendors that defend their software by making an honest attempt to show that it actually works. I don’t respect vendors that defend their efforts to sell software when they know it doesn’t work. Things that don’t work should not be sold—period. That’s good business.

Take care,


17 Comments on “Bad software comes from bad business models”

By Robert Kosara. October 6th, 2008 at 4:41 pm

“How did we come to find it acceptable to convince people to pay money for things that we know don’t work?”

How did we come to the point where selling people mortgages we knew they wouldn’t be able to pay back was considered a good idea? Why do we let companies sell food to people that makes them fat and sick (case in point: for the same price as a single, green, organic, bell pepper, you can buy a bucket of fried chicken - which one are you going to get if you’re strapped for money?)? When did we decide that convincing people to buy huge, inefficient cars would be the way to go, never mind the environment or the possibility that oil prices might one day rise again? And the list goes on.

This is not only about business intelligence and politics. It’s about integrity. If you’re prepared to sell out, it doesn’t matter who you’re selling out to. It’s that you don’t care about your customers, your product, your own idea of morality, or even just being able to look at yourself in the mirror.

But there’s another side to this: if people didn’t fall for it, all that wouldn’t be possible. But they do. People get into mortgages they know they won’t be able to afford a year later. They buy crappy food because it’s cheap. And they elect people based on feel-good messages without substance. And it’s not even that they are dumb - that would be too easy. It’s that they don’t want to know. It’s so much easier to just go with the flow than to question. There should be a lot more critical thinking taught in schools, no doubt. But as long as people’s suspicions (that things that sound too good to be true probably are) don’t get to the level where they actually start doing something, we’re stuck with flashy, useless programs, products, and politicians.

By Stephen Few. October 6th, 2008 at 4:56 pm

Amen brother!

By LBJ. October 7th, 2008 at 12:54 pm

I find your reference to Govenor Palin insulting in this context where I expect to find insight into business information visualiztion challenges and their solutions.

Stick to the real issue–some BI tool vendors know that business people wish only to cloak intuition-based decisions in the guise of factual analysis and consequently flash is more critical than substance in that realm. We don’t need partisan political opinions mixed in to the conversation to get your point.

By Stephen Few. October 7th, 2008 at 6:41 pm


You would prefer that I restrict my comments exclusively to business intelligence. I respect your preference, but choose to apply the principles that I teach about clear communication and truthfulness to all aspects of life. Misrepresentations of the truth and other bad practices that produce bad business intelligence are intimately related to similar practices in other aspects of life, including business in general, as Robert points out above, and definitely including politics.

You are free to ignore anything I say that doesn’t speak to your particular interests and you’re free to disagree with particular points that I make, but it isn’t your place to tell me that I can’t address issues that exceed the boundaries of business intelligence. The world we live in can’t be neatly compartmentalized into separate disconnected issues and concerns, and it shouldn’t be. People who care about integrity in business intelligence care about it in other areas of life as well.

By October 8th, 2008 at 11:58 am


as the first poster pointed out, human beings are irrational and suffer from a variety of biases that lead us to make poor decisions in many instances. you surely know this, and are a more intelligent person than i am. so, it surprises me that you are surprised by the fact that people buy software of dubious merit because they’re dazzled by gee-whiz gimmicks.

any of us could generate a nearly endless list of sub-par products with stellar sales, and we could also probably identify the reason(s) that they succeed in spite of being inferior products. why should software be any different?

as someone who’s done a lot of selling, i wish things worked the way you describe. i wish that you could fight the good fight, educate your clients, and get them to “see the light.” sadly, this is not the way the world works. we both know it.

By LBJ. October 8th, 2008 at 4:50 pm

So now the insults come my way (I must be compartmentalized, unable to apply principles beyond their initial context) because I had the guts to comment that your point regarding bad business practices could be made without resorting to biased political content. I am free to ignore, and disagree (as you state), and also (at least for the moment) free to express my opinion that your point could be made without resorting to political partisanship.

To be sure, your point, that people sell what others are willing to buy (regardless of the value or benefit for the buyer) is true…and Robert is correct that someone should have stopped to say “Why give a zero-down interest-only mortgage on a $1M home to a first-time home buyer with scant credit history and litte chance of being able to pay the money back?”

I think you’d agree with me that value is in the eye of the beholder, so it is the perogative of the buyer to purchase that which he finds valuable for whatever price he deems appropriate. It seems counter-intuitive that the seller should stand in the place of determining what is or is not valuable for her buyer. How is it that “good” and “bad” are established as measures to compare against? Of course, I could be wrong on that front, in which case we’re on the slippery slope of having to say that some things have value absolutely…hmmm.

By GleaM. October 9th, 2008 at 1:19 am

I heartly agree with #1: It’s all about integrity and self-respect.

Whatever you do, if by the end of the day you can look at your image in the mirror and feel: Well, there goes a day. I’ve done my best. Let’s keep up with tomorrow.

Sadly, few people feel it this way.

So I applaud your continuous efforts to educate, Stephen, because all starts with education ;)


By Stephen Few. October 10th, 2008 at 9:09 am


Actually, I didn’t say that you are overly “compartmentalized.” I have no way of knowing. I objected to your effort to compartmentalize me. Yes, I could have made my point about bad business practices without making a connection to bad political practices, but I chose to do so because it is true, it helps to make the point, and it involves a matter that is uppermost in my mind and the minds of others right now during the presidential campaign. My comment was not partisan, any more than your objection to it was. I didn’t endorse a candidate—I criticized one, which doesn’t mean that I endorse the opponent.

I actually don’t agree that “value is in the eye of the beholder.” I measure the value of software objectively, based on its ability to do what people need it to do. When software vendors lure customers into purchasing ineffective products through the use of flashy demos and entertaining effects, they are not serving the interests of those customers. People who buy products know the results that they need to achieve (or at least they should), but they often don’t know how the product should be designed to achieve that end. They aren’t experts in software design. Software vendors are supposed to be the experts in this. When customers think they need things that won’t actually serve their interests (which they’re often led to request because of the bad examples that software vendors show on their sites and in their marketing efforts), it is the responsibility of experts in the field to give them the information they need to make better choices.

By Stephen Few. October 10th, 2008 at 9:17 am


I believe that software companies as well as businesses of all types can succeed by giving people what they really need rather than by appealing to desires and expectations that don’t actually serve their interests. My business has been quite successful doing just that. Software companies such as Tableau are being quite successful doing just that. Selling products and services that really work feels great, because it’s the right thing to do and in our hearts we know it.

By Jacques Warren. October 11th, 2008 at 9:25 am

Hi Stephen,

The question is why people fall for the bells and whistles?

And why great visualization principles are not so self-evident that people would “fall” for them instead?

By Stephen Few. October 11th, 2008 at 4:45 pm


Things that are good for us–not just regarding software, but in all aspects of life–are often not obvious. We learn what’s good for us, and hopefully what we learn is accurate, based on empirical evidence. For instance, most of us are naturally inclined to love sugary treats and McDonald’s french fries, even though they’re not particularly good for us. Health sciences teach us better ways to eat if we wish to stay healthy. Some unhealthy or ineffective things that we’re naturally inclined to love might have been good for us at some point in our evolutionary past, but our needs changed faster than our longstanding and entrenched inclinations. In the meantime, in situations like this, we should rely on reason to lead us to better choices. Giving into base instincts that work against our true needs and better selves is hardly the way to build the bright future we all hope for.

I’ve found that it’s easy to convince all reasonable people that the silly stuff doesn’t work by showing them examples of good and bad practices, demonstrating how things work, and taking the time to explain why. I don’t have people coming up to me at the end of a class claiming they disagree with the practices that I teach and prefer the dysfunctional bells and whistles that most business intelligence vendors promote. Given a little instruction, everyone gets it. They might still feel tempted from time to time to gorge themselves on a pie chart or two, but they know they’ll regret in the morning.

By mp. October 13th, 2008 at 1:09 am


Completely agree that most things in this world which should be run objectively, lawfully and for the verifiable benefit of the government/businesses/public, are more often than not run completely backwards. Yes there seems to be this overriding issue where the public would vote on character rather than policies, and I suppose the same applies to businesses choosing flash over function.

I don’t really have the experience to make comments on the world of business intelligence and visualisation, but from recent experience I managed to prove to a board that simplicity and effectiveness really does trump anything else, and at far less cost. I managed to produce in Excel, something that would of otherwise cost £thousands and provides them exactly what they need. Less is more after all. Once your foot is in the door and you give them a glimpse of what can be done with even Excel (and cheaply), it’s like planting a seed. Just hope the next company understands the benefits too.

By alon. October 15th, 2008 at 2:27 pm

Great info. Reminds me of an article I ran into that talks about Visualization making its way into Enterprise Software Visualization Video.

By Robert. October 22nd, 2008 at 4:03 am

Maybe I’m biased, because I agree 100% with what you’re saying here, but I like this article :)

By David Harper. October 23rd, 2008 at 9:11 am

Hi Stephen, I quoted you in a presentation on “How Subprime loans are securitized”…I was inspired by this post…FYI, almost last page of:

David H

By Kontra. October 26th, 2008 at 11:07 pm

@LBJ:”I expect to find insight into business information visualiztion challenges and their solutions.”

Hmm, what exactly do you think Palin is *not selling* when she, ahem, lies? When she incessantly advocates “government getting out of the way,” you don’t think she is *selling*? That’s a business transaction pure and simple. She’s selling you the notion that, for example, the financial sector can self-regulate. The two sides of that business transaction is a) a fairy tale and b) highly opaque securitizations that made a small group billions. Are you so naive as to think that politics stands apart from business in some delusional way?

By TravisV. December 15th, 2008 at 11:04 am

This was a great read. I used to be pretty judgmental towards co’s that developed feature-bloated products without rationalizing everything based on demand or customers’ best interests. But after actually developing a product from scratch (still in alpha, but we’re nearing availability) I now understand how this happens. You start out with a vision for a need that your product should fill, and it’s incredible how quickly you can get swept up into fools’ errand features based on assumptions.

So it’s not that difficult to understand how these BI co’s that you reference find themselves with certain features that don’t really serve the customer’s best interests. But what’s unforgivable is when a company is aware of the worthlessness of features and is selling vaporwire to customers, IMO. I’d always rather be apologetic about a USEFUL feature that’s still in development (and asking for patience while we aggressively fill the gaps) … than lazily promoting eye candy features that are utterly worthless and pretending like everything is in the customer’s best interest. The former is honest and the latter is pretty devious. Shocking how many “leading vendors” are happy to compromise the great features their products DO have by misleading their customers to believe that other, worthless, features are more than they really are.