I’m writing this on the flight back from vacation. The downtime and distance from work has afforded me the space for a little introspection. I was momentarily tempted to write this while on vacation, but then my smarter self decided that spending time with family and my camera was a better use of my time. 🙂
I’ve been an enthusiastic Tableau user for about 5 years. I was the first user at my company (patient 0, if you will, of a data viz epidemic), consume several data viz blogs each week, and jump at any chance to showcase what Tableau is capable of. I’m not a Jedi, although I have been able to use Tableau to convince people that “these are not the data you are looking for”. I live in the tool all day, creating dashboards and ad-hoc vizzes to answer a myriad of business questions. My favorite moments are when I get to sit with a colleague or a team, familiarize myself with their data and analytical challenges, and then show them more insights more quickly than they thought possible.
All corporate jobs suck a bit of your soul out, but I’ve found that being able to groove with Tableau helps bring a little bit of that soul back.
Recently, though, I have been confronted by a series of executives who are insisting we go back to using Excel tables to run our meetings and analyze our business. Or if they acquiesce a little and entertain using Tableau as the delivery vehicle for the metrics, they insist on only seeing tables of numbers – often pasted into PowerPoint. We all know that tables are not where Tableau shines (it’s the viz type with the least flexibility), and so using it becomes increasingly awkward and frustrating.
Where did things go so wrong?
Could it be that all of our visualizations suck? If these executives were just shown a series of well-crafted and insightful charts they’d get religion and swear off their almost Pavlovian relationship to pivot tables (data bell rings, pivot table saliva forms). While I admit that Tableau can be used to produce some astonishingly bad visualizations (and I’ve created my share), I also know that we’ve engaged in a concerted effort to educate our Desktop users on how to tell effective stories with data. We’re not awash in 3D and spaghetti charts. And I know there are many people who have benefitted from the visual analytics I’ve provided. I’ve created a lot of Tableau fans. So that isn’t it.
Are these executives just visually illiterate, or unaware of the power of effective data visualization? Since I am still getting to know them, I am not too clear on what all they’ve been exposed to and how they’ve arrived at their predilection for rows & columns of numbers. I know they’re aware of data visualization (who isn’t these days?), but this isn’t the form of analysis they instinctively turn to. I do intend to show them how much better a good visual is over a table of numbers, but I don’t know how long that might take. And while I am a little excited at the prospect of maybe creating some new converts, I’m also experiencing phantom headaches from the number of times I expect I’ll hit a brick wall.
Is it because they don’t have Desktop licenses themselves and therefore haven’t experienced the joy that visual data discovery can hold? I think this is the larger issue, and the one I have the least control over. Our organization has a limited number of licenses it gives out, and we will never have enough budget to cover all of the people who would benefit from it. Excel, on the other hand, is available to almost everyone. And if Excel isn’t, Google Sheets is. I’ve often contended that Tableau Desktop wipes the floor with Excel, but that the raw awesomeness of Tableau doesn’t really extend to Reader and Server, especially when browser editing isn’t available (which it isn’t in our organization due to governance and performance concerns). Non-Desktop users are constrained by the views and interactivity that have been given to them. And while I’ve been doing my utmost to provide rich and flexible visuals with clear insights, I find that I’m regularly fighting the lure of the pivot table. I know that I’ve utterly failed at my visual storytelling when the first thing a user asks is how to export the data into Excel, but even when I’ve designed a very compelling dashboard there will be users who want to ask a question I haven’t anticipated, or slice it via a filter I haven’t provided. And while I can often add these very rapidly, I’ve now introduced a delay into the analytical workflow; I’ve donned the robes of the high priesthood that I know harken back to an earlier, less enlightened time.
This limitation extends to meetings as well. I’ve regularly advocated for my extended team to use Tableau visualizations live in meetings, where story points and interactive drill could really guide the conversation. And for meetings that I’ve hosted, that has happened. But because not everyone who hosts the meetings has a Desktop license (in fact, most don’t), they aren’t able to annotate or tailor the visuals the way they want to. So they’re left with taking screenshots, pasting them into PowerPoint and then adding commentary. And since the screenshots can often be blurry, stretched or too small (fully undermining any insights the visuals might have conveyed and turning them instead into wallpaper) the trend has been to go back to just pasting tables of numbers alongside bullet points on slides. I feel like I’m watching my organization slip back into the BI Stone Age while I stand beside the humming Tableau monolith that is cordoned off by a VIP rope line.
So what to do?
Unless I can scare up a ton of cash by convincing our IT department to lower their investment in lesser tools like Business Objects (which has a massive footprint, with most users having a license even though they may not use it), there will remain a fair number of users who can’t or won’t get a Tableau Desktop license and who are unhappy with the constraints placed upon them by Reader and Server. And if some of those users hold my purse strings, that translates into less time with Tableau (at least at work – thank God for Public!). Reducing my time with Tableau so I can learn other analytical tools (Alteryx, R, Lyra) would be a growth opportunity, but to do it just so I can spend more time collecting and distributing data in spreadsheets is simply deflating.
I will certainly continue improving my analytical and storytelling skills, and I will keep trying to educate those who don’t appreciate the value of good visual analysis, but it’s frustrating to see an awesome tool like Tableau not penetrate the way it should.
I know I’m not the only one who’s faced this type of challenge. I’m curious to know how others have dealt with it. If one or two of my five readers would chime in, it’d be most appreciated. 🙂