Follow-up to Tableau/Gartner graph post

Delighted that Elissa Fink, VP Marketing at Tableau Software, has taken the time to comment on my recent post ‘Tableau graph showing Gartner’s customer survey results‘ to provide some important context and explanation behind the use of this graph in their recent blog item.

Elissa comments as follows:

Thanks for noticing our blog post. The graph was not created by Tableau – it’s Gartner’s graph. I should have made it more obvious that the graph was not ours (and because of your comment, I’ll make that change on the post). Gartner does not release the raw data and only allows people to show their original graphics. So all we could do was show their graph. I should have cited them as the maker of the graph; we know that there are better ways to show that data. Thanks again for noticing our post! Best, Elissa Fink

Many thanks to Elissa for clearing this up and, as a fan of the software, glad to hear that it isn’t one of their own!

Tableau graph showing Gartner’s customer survey results

Very disappointed in Tableau for the production of this graph on their most recent blog post. I’m a big fan of their software and their credible stance on principles relating to data visualisation but, on this occasion, they’ve produced something which breaks a number of their championed best practices.

The graph displayed relates to the results of a Gartner customer survey and presents how customers are using various BI platforms.

The accompanying narrative is as follows:

In the graph above, we’re seeing the percent of customers using the product for one of eight different BI activities. Each stacked bar represents the summation of those. Since one customer can use a product for multiple functions, the stacked bar reaches well over 100%.

It would appear that for each of the eight categories of BI activity respondents gave a yes or no reply depending on whether they use the software for that purpose or not. So for each activity the potential highest value would be 100% usage.

Tableau are therefore trying to show how versatile their software is by revealing the high usage percentages against the categories as an aggreate, however, this is not an effective way to present the information. The value axis labelled ‘percentage of respondents’ goes way beyond 100% reaching about 260% which typifies the confusion the reader has trying to interpret the graph.

I haven’t got the raw numbers to usefully create a redesign but a more effective way to present this (and incidentally a method which is fundamental to the functionality of Tableau) would be through small multiples, perhaps with Tableau’s values highlighted. A summary graph could then be plotted revealing the mean percentages across all eight categories which would reveal tableau as having the highest value, thus achieving the apparent aim of this graph.

Top 50 University spin-out companies | Sparklines

Intersting to see in the Telegraph newspaper a report about the Top 50 University spin-out companies and, in particular, the use of sparklines. The graphs themselves are embedded from a service called younoodle scores which claims to have ‘the largest-ever dynamic directory of active startups, compiled from proprietary tracking technology, a rapidly-growing community, and several leading startup data partners‘.

Sparklines convey trend information in a single line graph and are ideally applied in small multiples when you are faced with limited space like that of the tabular layout above. They are not designed to facilitate point-reading, they simply enable the viewer to gauge a sense of the different journeys an array of values have gone through over a specified time span.

Site changes & Facebook page

I’m currently making a few cosmetic changes to the site, refining the header and some of the WordPress templates , developing a logo, installing a range of plugins to enhance the usability of the site etc.

I have also buckled under the weight of demand (a whole 3 requests) to set up an accompanying Visualising Data Facebook page so readers and visitors can now follow and share my posts within Facebook. Its very raw at the moment but I will be developing the content and features of this page in the coming days. I will also be trying to recruit some fans to make it worth while so feel free to join!

Improving an iPhone ‘My Account’ app design: Reworking part 2

A few days ago I published a post assessing the design flaws with the O2 ‘My Account’ app for the iPhone. In this second part of two posts I will propose a potential revised design.

Design considerations and requirements

So where do we start with the redesign? Well, firstly, we need to consider the purpose of this application and what the user’s needs are – all design must focus first on the user.

Putting myself into the role of the user, which in this case I am, I would consider these to be the most important items of information I would wish to have displayed:

Additionally, there are several items of information that could be provided that would be of particular interest:

The current design provides only some of this information. I won’t repeat the analysis I provided in the earlier post but this presentation is inefficient (split over two screens, wasted use of space) and ineffective (unnecessary gauge displays).

Proposed redesign

The focus of the redesign was to present all the information i was interested in on a single screen, enabling the eye to clearly pick up the most prominent elements of interest.

Here are some general comments about the redesign:

I feel this redesign offers a much more effective solution for delivering the information and interface approach I require from such an application. Feel free to comment.

Improving an iPhone ‘My Account’ app design: Reworking part 1

A few weeks ago I posted some screenshots from the O2 ‘My Account’ app for the iPhone.  I suggested that the design could be much improved in order to increase the efficiency in the use of space and also make better use of the opportunity to provide valuable account analysis.

At the time I promised to publish a suggested reworking of this design within a few days, however, software problems and other commitments have delayed me. In this first part of two posts I will assess in greater detail the problems I perceive with the original designs. The second part, in a few days time (honestly), will publish the redesign ideas I’ve come up with.

Current design and content

If we look at the existing design, which is spread across 2 screens, these are the items of data presented:


Mobile number
Date of next bill period

Screen 1

Minutes available
Minutes used
Minutes remaining
Messages available
Messages used
Messages remaining

Screen 2

Total recent charges
Voice charges
Text message charges
Data charges
International charges
Other charges

Assessing the current design
The major flaw in the current design is the low ratio of data to available screen space and the fact you have to navigate to a second screen to view further useful items. There are four elements that cause this reduced data density: the headers, the gauges, the navigation button and the footnote text.

  1. The header information below the title is a waste of time, needlessly reminding the user of their name and mobile number. I’m fairly sure most people will be aware of their name and also won’t need reminding of their mobile number. This data may occupy only 6% of the screen but nevertheless this is wasted space.
  2. The gauges are utterly unnecessary gimmicks that provide the user with absolutely no added insight to their usage figures. All they do is waste 10% of the screen space and repeat, ineffectively, the data already presented numerically.
  3. The ‘Recent charges’ navigation button is needed because there is no space available to present the data shown on the recent charges/second screen. If the other design flaws listed here were absent the second screen would not be required and neither would this navigation button. Currently, the button and the unused space flanking it occupies over 8% of space.
  4. The footnote text may be necessarily included from a legal perspective but does it really need to be presented on the main screen especially given that it takes up a massive 17% of the space? You’d think it could be hidden away on a secondary page, navigable via a button or link of its own and with a footnote indicator next to the figures presented.

You could also make a case for the minutes/texts ‘available’ figures to be considered unnecessary given the remaining and used values combine to this total and the user is probably well aware of their contract allowances.

The conclusion is that 41% of the design ‘real estate’ provided by a single screen is being wasted. So what is the solution?

I’ll come back to you with my attempt in a few days…

The Economist | The data deluge

Providing some fantastic contextual information about the value of skills and services like data visualisation, the 27th February edition of The Ecomomist focuses on information overload. The front cover and leader column explore ‘The data deluge’ and inside there is a a 14-page special report specifically on managing information.

This content is accessible only on a subscription basis, but it is possible to register free for a 14-day trial subscription.

If only the Egyptians had built bars…

…maybe we wouldn’t have graphs like this!


Observations from the FlowingData challenge

I wanted to share some general observations following the FlowingData challenge from last Friday which has provoked a large response.

Readers were invited to comment on and offer makeover designs for the above 3D pyramid diagram which related to the US Farm Bill governing what children are fed in US schools and what food assistance programs can distribute to recipients. The graphic was taken from an article published on the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) website. Robert Kosara at EagerEyes had also picked up on the graph.

Salad vs. Big Mac?

The first observation concerns the applicability of the title ‘Why does a salad cost more than a Big Mac?’. I don’t believe this question accurately frames the nature of the article nor the information comparison being made, rather it implies that the main food group ingredients of a Big Mac receive higher subsidies than the contents of a salad and, therefore, has a lower cost to the consumer. It appears to have been used to be more appealing and less ‘dry’ than something like ‘How do federal food subsidy levels compare to nutritional recommendations?’.

The graph reveals nothing about how subsidies affect the prices of various food groups and this is what would be needed to understand the reasons for cost differences between a Big Mac and a salad. The title also has no relevance to the right-hand pyramid information around nutritional advice.

Legitimacy of comparison?

The flawed title aside, a number of people challenged the direct comparison being made between the nutritional advice and the subsidy levels, commenting that you wouldn’t expect these to be consistent and raising several influencing factors that would impact on subsidy levels. These included the affordability of the commodity, industrial competitiveness, food production costs, jobs and the economy at large. There would also be relationships between the food groups themselves, for example the grain crops will be used as feed to support the meat and dairy industries, and so the subsidy values would not be independent. As one commenter on this site (Trish) remarked, it would have been more useful to see if production levels matched the recommended proportions and if the subsidies reflect the size of the respective food group markets.

All these are entirely legitimate comments and, whilst they shouldn’t necessarily obstruct the comparison being made between the two sets of data, they should be taken fully into account when interpretations are made and conclusions drawn.

Graph designs

The majority of discussions, naturally, focused on the use of the 3D pyramids to present the subsidy and nutritional serving information as well as the merits of alternative designs. I was most interested by the divided responses I noted.

Sifting through the comments on FlowingData and the correspondence I’ve received, crudely, I’d suggest around one-third of respondents expressed positive sentiment towards the pyramids with two-thirds recommending or preferring alternative approaches. Very unscientific, of course, but that was the general feeling I picked up.

At this point it is important to remember that the demographic of those involved in this discussion will typically be people who are relatively well informed about the established principles of information design (through Cleveland, Tufte and Few etc.), so we are not necessarily talking about casual consumers of information. Given this context, it was very interesting to observe a relatively high proportion of people seeming to like (or at least not hate) the pyramids.

I say interesting rather than surprising because I have witnessed similar reactions through my own research into the issue of form vs. function of graph design. I’m currently writing an article about this study, so wont go into much detail. One of the experiments I conducted involved ‘everyday’ participants grading their aesthetic responses to a range of different graph designs. The results showed 64% exhibiting a strong preference for 3D designs. Furthermore, even when these same people subsequently experienced the challenge of interpreting values from these designs, and were shown to have performed inaccurately, many still expressed a preference for such designs.

Of course we are talking about a smaller proportion of pyramid ‘supporters’ here and many have acknowledged the flawed use of the third dimension given the encoding of the pyramid slice values were based on height rather than slice volume. But it does show that, despite an understanding of the principles behind best practice designs, people are still drawn towards supposedly flawed constructions. Whilst research conducted in subjects such as interface design has shown a strong preference towards the use of artefacts and devices with physical characteristics in the design of websites and software applications, clearly, we are still some way off fully understanding the interplay between form and function in graph design.

Several comments noted the familiarity of the pyramid and the consistency of the pyramid being used for food nutrition displays. I’ve heard similar sentiments expressed towards pie charts (unsurprisingly) as they represent physical pies or pizzas (on a side note, one of my main problems reading pie charts has always been my inability to avoid slipping into seeing it as a clock face and therefore interpreting 25% segments as 15%).

There also seemed to be a sense that the pyramids did all that was asked of them – express the headline difference between the subsidy segments and the nutritional recommendations through the inconsistent sized chunks of coloured shapes. They weren’t intending to make key decisions based on a detailed understanding of all the data, they just wanted to gain a simple feel for the profile of the two data sets. And more than anything they just liked the pyramids as a refreshing, creative difference to the ubiquitous use of a narrow range of graph types, specifically the bar/column chart in this case.

Closing comments

I produced the redesign below based firmly on the design principles I have learnt and been taught. My personal aim was to create a design that most effectively and efficiently presented the information. Along with many other flaws (in my mind) I felt the pyramids fundamentally wasted an opportunity to fully reveal the stark differences between the subsidy and nutritional proportions.

Some people acknowledged the need for this type of redesign, providing a nice clear and clean display, but the pyramids approach seemed to fit better with what they wanted to look at and this is at the very core of the challenge we face in this field.

The illogical irrationality and impulsiveness we see in all walks of life, how we choose to act and respond to different decision situations we face, how we are so strongly affected by gut feel and immediate taste, has such a strong grip on how we prefer to experience information presented in graphical form. We might know it is wrong, but we feel it is right.

For those of us trying to affect change, this phenomenon represents the most difficult and seemingly impenetrable issue. It is one we might need to tackle with a fresher, more flexible approach.

Guardian graphics team wins award

Good to see that the Guardian newspaper’s graphics team has one a handful of awards at the Malofiej18 graphic design competition. From the UK perspective at least they are leading the way with regards to the use of information graphics to support their articles. I don’t necessarily always agree with the selection of graphical methods they employ, but you cannot argue with the appeal and supplementary value they bring to the newspaper’s output.

Silver Award for ‘Public sector workers: what we pay them’

Bronze Award for ‘The deficit mountain’

Plasticine showcase

Wanted to share this from Smashing Magazine who have published a post compiling some of the most creative uses of plasticine in fields such as art, modern advertising and video animation. There is something so warm and appealing about creations like these that creates a really positive reaction from viewers or target consumers. Aside from the wonderful vivid and pure colours, it probably comes from a combination of the memory of the kids programmes we used to watch as well as remembering the pleasurable, tactile joy of forming shapes and characters with plasticine.