Tableau, Stephen Few, and Six Principles


We're back from beautiful Seattle having immersed ourselves in the data visualization party known as the 2010 Tableau Customer Conference. It was a wonderfully planned and executed conference during which we met lots of great Tableau users, exchanged data visualization tips, and learned a bunch about what Tableau is up to in version 6.0 (the most highly anticipated enhancement is no doubt the 100x performance improvement of the data engine.) The folks at Tableau are definitely ramping up for some great things and it was a privilege to be part of it.

As most of you know our core business is about building custom information applications to make information accessible to everyone, not just analysts. But we do so love the work they're doing over at Tableau and keep a close eye on them. As a result, when they extended an offer for us to speak, we were thrilled.

Following our sessions, I was all excited about the reaction we had gotten from our attendees when one of my coworkers pointed out that I had made a terrible mistake: I neglected to give proper credit to Stephen Few. Part of the content that we covered was about how to effectively position elements in an information display to make it easy for the brain to understand what it's seeing. To do this we discussed "6 Principles of Visual Context":

  • Principle of Proximity - Things that are visually close to each other are related
  • Principle of Similarity - Things that look like each other (size, color, shape) are related
  • Principle of Enclosure - Things that are enclosed by a shape are related
  • Principle of Closure - We see incomplete shapes as complete
  • Principle of Continuity - Things that are aligned are related
  • Principle of Connection - Things that are visually connected are related

A great set of guidelines that explain so much about why some things make visual sense and others don't.

However, in the heat of the moment, I neglected to point out that these principles are based on some very nice work Stephen performed a while back. We're big fans of his and want to make sure we give credit where credit's due. So, if you you're not familiar with these principles, or haven't reviewed them recently, please check them out. Very powerful stuff.

As far as the conference goes, if you're a Tableau user, you should plan on attending next year. At about 700 attendees, it was nearly twice as big as the 2009 conference, and if the passion and excitement of Christian Chabbot is any indication, next year will be even bigger and even better.