While catching up on the latest data visualization news yesterday, I ran across a blog post by Mario Bonardo of Teradata Corporation. Bonardo’s account of a recent Teradata event in Europe caused me painful dismay. He praised a presentation by infographic artist David McCandless, suggesting that what McCandless does is precisely what needs to be happening in the realm of analytics. Bonardo wrote: “Being asked about the differences between traditional information graphics and his own ones, McCandless said he is aiming to remove as much irrelevant information as possible to get to the core of things, discover new correlations and challenge traditional views.” My dismay does not stem from McCandless’ words, but from his actual practices, which don’t deliver what he claims and certainly don’t point the way to a productive future for analytics. Here are two typical examples of McCandless’ work from his website:
[Notice how hard you must work to figure out what the various mountain ranges represent. Don’t bother actually trying to determine or compare the values, because it can’t be done.]
[I bet that any one of your reading this can think of a better way to display these values for easier, more accurate comparisons.]
You can also read my critique and redesign of a well-known visualization by McCandless—”Colours in Cultures”—in my March/April/May 2010 Visual Business Intelligence Newsletter article titled “Our Irresistible Fascination with All Things Circular.”
Stripping away the irrelevant—McCandless’ stated goal—can only be done once you’ve found a way to display the relevant. Too many of his visualizations display information in ways that hide much that’s relevant and essential, leaving little of value for the viewer to see. McCandless rarely chooses forms of display that our eyes and brains can perceive with ease and precision. He selects what will appeal superficially to the viewer (lots of circles, swirls, and vibrant colors), not what will most effectively express what’s essential and meaningful. His displays rarely draw viewers into the data in a thoughtful way, but entertain in a way that delivers a simple message, which is often anemic when compared to the richer, subtler, and more complex stories that live in the data.
McCandless is a creator of infographics: combinations of words and graphics that are designed to communicate specific messages. On those rare occasions when his infographics lend themselves to data exploration and analysis, they do so in limited and awkward ways, asking viewers to perform data surgery with blunt instruments. Infographics of this type attempt to tell a story. In McCandless’ case, the stories that they usually tell, if communicated in words alone, would require only a short sentence or two. They make a simple statement in a way that looks lighthearted and fun. As such, they invite viewers to accept the message superficially, not to explore or contemplate deeply. This is not the true realm of analytics.
According to Bonardo, the other members of the panel in which McCandless participated at Teradata’s event made statements in support of his approach, but their comments make me wonder—assuming that Bonardo represents their intentions accurately—if they’re actually familiar with his work.
Stephen Brobst of Teradata said: “Whereas traditional reporting tools were providing answers to pre-defined questions, todays analytical environments offer opportunities to think out of the box and help to find new questions to develop cutting edge business strategies.” Most of today’s so-called analytical environments fail to do this, with only a few exceptions. I’ve seen no evidence that McCandless’ work attempts to address this opportunity at all.
Oliver Ratzenberger of eBay said: “We offer specific visualization classes for our data analysts. We really want them to play with data so that they may actually find new nuggets.” I know this to be true, because I’ve taught information visualization courses privately for teams of analysts at eBay. Trust me when I say that I did not promote the practices of McCandless, which don’t support the rich exploration of data that eBay needs.
Daniel Rodriguez Sierra from Telefonica said: “Human beings are very good at recognizing patterns. The challenge is to display data in a way that it allows human beings to make full use of this natural strength.” How true, but McCandless’ work usually disregards human perceptual and cognitive abilities.
There is a world of difference between the simplistic (that is, overly simplified), artistic infographics of McCandless and the engaging, thoughtful interaction with data that analytics requires. If the business intelligence (BI) industry is now choosing to swap its primitive, dysfunctional charts for the artistic approach of McCandless, we’ll be in for several more years of BI failure. To date, Teradata has partnered with some good data visualization vendors (for example, Tableau) and some embarrassingly bad data visualization vendors (for example, FYI Corporation, which is now defunct, and Bis2). Featuring McCandless’ work does not bode well for the direction Teradata is heading.
In closing these remarks, I want to challenge the merits of the theme that Teradata chose for this event: “Innovate to Differentiate.” Innovation is useful when it leads to a better way of doing things, not just a different way. Innovation in and of itself is highly overrated. There’s been relatively little real innovation in BI for many years. Much of what’s been marketed as innovation is old news repackaged, in the hope that no one will notice. Rather than trying to innovate in the realm of analytics without the required expertise, it’s time for BI companies, consultants, and thought leaders to first learn the basics of data sensemaking and communication—analytics—and only afterwards to try their hands at creating something new.