Tangible interfaces

If I could influence the future of business intelligence tools (wait, maybe I can), I would put a premium on "tangible" data manipulation. I’d design interfaces that let users touch, play with, and sculpt data as an object.

Many data crunching applications, particularly those focused on statistics (e.g. SAS), tend to separate the user from the act of data manipulation. The user defines a set of scripts or formulas, points to a data set, and let’s the application take over. For a programmer, this type of abstraction works. For non-technical business folk, it limits our ability to understand what is happening and why the result turned out differently than we imagined.

Here are a couple interesting examples of computer interfaces that attempt to merge real-world touch and feel with digital-world manipulation of information:

Via Information Aesthetics

What if BI interfaces brought an artisan’s mentality (I’m imagining glassblower for some reason) to data manipulation? Data is the tangible raw material. When there was something odd or imperfect in the raw material, it would be obvious on visual inspection. We’d have access to a variety of tools, some for broad and crude actions, others for a more delicate and subtle actions. These tools would be put in physical contact with the data to shape it. Finally, we could add a final aesthetic finish to our creation. Analysts could take pride in creating digital objects that could move and influence others.

Related thought: can we blame the poor visualization of analytical results on the lack of visualization in the data analysis and manipulation process?