Data Visualization and Dog Food

You’re probably familiar with the expression: “Eating one’s own dog food.” Although it sounds a bit repulsive, it refers to a company using its own products. The makers of products should routinely and liberally use them to do real work of their own. Vendors that don’t do this fly blindly. I know several that fall into this category. In addition to eating their own dog food, vendors should also follow the best practices of their field. This means that business intelligence vendors ought to run their companies intelligently, using data in effective ways to inform their decisions (it’s surprising how few do). It also means that data visualization vendors should demonstrate good visual design practices in everything they produce, especially what they produce for the public. For this reason, among others, I work hard to follow the data visualization principles that I teach in everything that I produce. I know that if I slip up, I’ll invite a barrage of criticism—and rightfully so.

It is in this spirit that I want to say “shame on you” to a couple of vendors because they have recently distributed promotional materials that collide with data visualization principles and practices, which they supposedly understand and support. The first example was distributed by Advanced Visual Systems (AVS) as a promotional email, which appears below.

If you received this ad in an email, would you bother to read it? I expect better visual design from a data visualization vendor. I know that AVS produces software that can be used to create effective data analysis and presentation applications, but this ad suggests differently. It reminds me a bit of those documents that people produced in droves when word processing software first became available and no one could resist playing with the new fonts and colors. In this ad, colors have been over-used and applied to text and sections of background in meaningless ways. All but one section of text have been pressed right up against their top and bottom boundaries, giving them a crowded appearance. By indenting the “AVS is an authorized reseller…” section and placing extra space above and below the text, this section of content has been caused to arbitrarily pop out, as if it deserves to be featured. The horizontal bands of gold and varying shades of background color fragment the content, separating related sections from one another. Even apart from the visual design, the advertising copy itself exhibits no clear organization. Just add bullet points in front of the sentences and what we have here is a really bad but typical PowerPoint slide.

The person who created this marketing email is probably not one of the AVS’s data visualization experts. Likely, it was created by someone in the marketing department with no training in data visualization or in any aspect of information design. This person is probably not at fault for lacking the necessary knowledge and skills, but someone’s certainly at fault for letting this slip through. Vendors should demonstrate the expertise that they claim in everything they produce, including their marketing materials. This means that people who participate in producing anything that goes out to the public—products and marketing materials—must understand the company’s mission and possess enough of its expertise to represent the company accurately and skillfully.

Data visualization researchers who include poorly designed Excel charts in their research papers undermine the credibility of their work. Vendors that showcase horribly designed dashboards, even if their products are capable of producing better, shouldn’t expect to be taken seriously.

Although I’m somewhat familiar with AVS, I’ve never done any work for this company, but I have worked a fair amount with the other company whose promotional materials have recently ignited my ire: SAS. Take a look at the following graph, which appeared in a February 4, 2009 press release about the company’s impressive earnings:

When I saw this graph my chin nearly hit the floor. These guys know better. Perhaps their marketing department doesn’t, but the folks that I’ve worked with at SAS certainly do. This graph is completely unreadable. The twists and turns of the baseline (which differs, by the way, from the graph’s top edge), the 3-D plane, and the rounded bars with angled tops, among other things, emulate the kind of display you might expect from a PowerPoint clip-art library, but not from SAS, which is perhaps the world’s leading statistical analysis vendor. I suspect that this was created by a graphic artist in the marketing department who wouldn’t know a good graph from a George Foreman Grill, but that’s no excuse. I hope that some of the $2.26 billion that SAS earned last year will be invested this year in teaching their marketing department more about the company’s business and the principles and practices that distinguish them. Come on SAS executives, stop undermining the fine work of those who design your products by allowing the distribution of embarrassing marketing materials like this.

All of us who provide data analysis and presentation products and services should stay true to our mission in everything we do. Oh yeah, and we should always remember to dine regularly on our own dog food. 

Take care,

7 Comments on “Data Visualization and Dog Food”

By Seth Grimes. March 1st, 2009 at 5:13 am

Steve, I see another possible fault of that SAS in addition to unreadability. The graph is that it may distort the data. The axes are bent into the foreground: the horizontal, year axis and the vertical, revenue axis. Per the usual approach for a 2D depiction of a 3D object, the objects closer to the viewer — the bars toward the right end of the year axis and the upper ends of the bars (where revenue is greater) — are enlarged. The bent-axis graph may visually suggest a steeper growth curve than a graph with unbent axes would. Do you see this?

By Stephen Few. March 1st, 2009 at 8:27 am


I do indeed. If this was done intentionally to skew perception in their favor, it’s an example of what many marketing departments consider “just doing their job,” but it’s a form of deceit nonetheless. When you spend your life trying to help people use visual displays to tell the truth with data as clearly, accurately, and simply as possible, as I do, it’s painful to see visual displays that are designed to play with people’s perceptions of the truth.

By Xan Gregg. March 2nd, 2009 at 2:11 pm

Hi Steve,

We’ve been talking about that graph within SAS since the day it went public. The marketing folks have been working on an improved version, but the focus of our efforts has been setting up a review process so something like that doesn’t go out again. Your post helps validate those efforts — thanks.

Going beyond the unfortunate twisting, it’s not so easy to plot this data because of the vast change in scale. As an engineer, I’d be happy with a log scale, especially since the growth is largely exponential, but I don’t think that would do for the broad audience of a press release.

By Stephen Few. March 2nd, 2009 at 2:40 pm

Hi Xan,

When I wrote this blog, I definitely had you in mind as one of the people at SAS who was twitching with discontent that a graph like this was made public with the name SAS attached to it. It’s good to hear that you’re implementing a review process for marketing content.

Years ago I developed a presentation for a conference, but discovered just a couple of days before delivering it that someone in marketing had decided to change the title in all the advanced promotional materials, not realizing that her change caused an utter mismatch between the presentation’s title and its content. I’m sure that she thought she was being helpful, but her lack of expertise in the subject led to error. I’m very careful these days to make sure that I’m given a chance to review all promotional content before it’s released.

I hope that I helped you make your case in some small way by adding some external support to your position.

By mr tom. March 3rd, 2009 at 12:10 pm

Genuinely hilarious.

You wonder who they are targeting with this. Certainly not people who are serious about DV as it sends them a very clear message…

By Tony. March 5th, 2009 at 4:45 am

It seems like the whitehouse liked it so much they used a similar concept on homepage.

By Jerome Cukier » Review of Tableau 5.0. September 1st, 2009 at 9:03 am

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