Thursday, July 17, 2008

Visualizations as Metaphors II

I wrote a post a while back about using visualizations as metaphors. Seth Godin recently posted about how useful he found pie-charts when compared to your average bar chart. He got a lot of flak for this as most visualization experts will tell you the opposite - that bar charts are a far superior visualization tool.

I believe Seth's point was similar to the one I was making in my first post - that sometimes a purposely overt graphic (such as a single pie with one large piece sticking out) is the best way to make a point. You could structure it as a metaphor, or it could be a simple exaggeration. Some political 'data spin' maybe?

The reason Seth thinks like this is because he is a Marketer. Marketers spend their lives (inside and outside their company) trying to convince people of things. To a marketer, a presentation that presents just the facts is pointless. Facts without an argument that in some way enhances the Marketer's agenda is a waste of time.

This is a good thing. You're paying your Marketing people to have a point of view.

To many data visualization experts though (and scientists), facts are these pure things that need to be wrapped in cotton wool and protected from opinion and false hypothesizing. Hence their dismay at the misleading pie-chart segment size error in displaying quantitative information.

The gulf here, between Marketing and most data visualization experts and BI (Business Intelligence) people, is about the size of Texas.

But you need both points of view. Marketers who get paralyzed by facts tend to do a poor job. I know too some people that will sound strange, but we're not talking about denying the existence of gravity, we're talking about challenging or changing perceived norms. If you get too caught up in why x number of people don't do y, you are never going to try and figure out how to make y work.

Likewise, show me a company run by data visualization experts. No more commentary necessary.

What you really need is a mix of both mentalities. You need enough understanding of numbers and graphs to know when to break the rules. And enough respect to know when not to.

I think Seth has a pretty good balance.

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