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Tableau Software, which makes tools for visualizing all kind of digital information, released a new version of its flagship product. That wouldn’t be a big deal in itself, but the features Tableau has added say a lot about what’s happening in the business world.
In the new version, Tableau 8.2, people are encouraged to shift from making individual maps, bar charts and fever lines that illustrate information. Instead, Tableau has added a series of narrative boxes that go above each chart; clicked through in order, the charts should be better at using different data points to prove an overall case.
For example, in a presentation on earthquakes, by clicking the arrow on the upper right we are led through an explanation that although reports of earthquakes have been on the rise over the last several decades, this probably doesn’t mean there are more earthquakes. What has happened is that we now have better tools for detecting quakes. Big quakes, which don’t need sensors to be felt, have been steady.
“We wanted to string together information to create storytelling capabilities,” said Francois Ajenstat, director of product management at Tableau. “We want people to be more curious, to explore the data.” Turning the numbers into a story, he said, should help that.
The charts can also automatically add new data as it streams in, which further illustrates why Tableau is making these changes: Data has moved from something that is painstakingly collected, stored and downloaded to something that more often automatically streams online.
As a result, we are starting to think of information in more dynamic ways, and need to visualize information as something that changes over time. That is a big change from a typical PowerPoint presentation, which presents data in more static ways.
At its best, this could mean we’ll move from seeing projections of data less as a single concept, which must be digested and then considered against another distinct point. Instead, it could be more of a fluid persuasion, based on lots of related information.
“There’s a lot of opportunity here,” said Mr. Ajenstat, whose company has sold visualization software to over 19,000 corporations. “Every single person in the world uses data now. Things like the quantified self will make them want to show that data better.”
Tableau is hardly alone in this shift to dynamic illustration. Stamen Design, a company based in San Francisco that has worked for Google and Facebook, increasingly uses animations of data points. A company called ClearStory Data helps people move through mountains of big data by interactive charts and maps. Even Microsoft offers animations as an addition to its PowerPoint product.
This may not necessarily mean that meetings are going to start being lots more fun, however, if old-style PowerPoint livens up. Knowing how to use tools still matters as much as having them, and, if anything, that could become an even bigger challenge as we gain more data sources.
Tableau already employs a cognitive psychologist to help with things like color choices in presentations. Category data, like different products, should have strongly contrasting colors, while related numerical data, like sales trends, should be presented in a continuum of gradual shades.
The company also offers tutorials on how to do this kind of presentation better, as well as showcasing a gallery where people have done interesting work using free versions of Tableau (so far these are the older, static kind of presentation). There are other visualization tutorials out on the web, as well.