Visual Analytics: What’s The Big Deal?

During several conversations recently the following comment came up:  “What’s the big deal with visual analytics?  It’s just a bunch of pretty pictures!”  It took a while, but it finally dawned on me that we have reached the Xerox-GUI-Macintosh stage for data analysis.  The early versions of a graphical user interface (GUI) which were developed at what was then called Xerox-PARC were no commercial success until Macintosh – now better known as Apple – created a computer that allowed everyone to point and click rather than write arcane computer instructions.

While point-and-click is much easier than writing code, it still requires computer users to become familiar with what the computer can do and how to accomplish various tasks.  It also requires standards about where to click and what should happen when certain actions are taken.  All this knowledge and these standards had to develop over time and often through trial and error.

In some ways we have reached a similar stage for data analysis: visual analytics provides a new language through which non-analysts can explore and answer business questions.  It frees the non-technical user from the analytic equivalent of writing code, that is, it frees them from the need to learn how to create graphics that – until now – required significant technical knowledge to generate.

As with any new technology, some mayhem ensues: we have to gain experience and learn through practice.  We need to become fluent in the appropriate use of less familiar – yet oddly intuitive – graphing techniques like sparklines, heatmaps or small multiples.  In short, we must develop a visual vocabulary beyond the bar charts and line graphs we know from Excel or PowerPoint.

And this brings me back to the Xerox-GUI-Macintosh comment from the beginning: as in those early days of learning the language of icons and point-and-click, we have now reached the point where more powerful ways of encoding data in a visual format is available to the lay person.  Just as with the graphical user interface, we will some day look back and say “I can’t imagine a world without seeing data in pictures.”  For at least a little while, those of us in the analyst professions need to act as interpreters and guides to those who are learning this new language.   Sooner rather than later we will all get there.

1 comment to Visual Analytics: What’s The Big Deal?

  • I agree. With tools like Tableau helping the non-technical information consumer make the correct choices for displaying data, we are entering a new era that will bring greater transparency and understanding.