The Conflicted Data Analyst

Americans are a painfully conflicted people. We love our TV and movie violence but worry that it ruins our children’s minds. We want to reduce healthcare costs, but don’t want to restrict the free market. We love Justin Bieber, but hate ourselves for loving a Canadian. Conflicts like these leave little room for a satisfactory answer. Basic principles are in conflict and deeply-rooted desires run up against painful consequences. We don’t want to choose, and the middle ground feels like failure.

The people who practice data analysis and visualization have their own set of immutable conflicts. Do any of these sound familiar?

“My boss wants pie charts, 3D, and lots of bright colors, but... I know that stuff is a distraction from the message of the data.”

“I only want to focus on actionable data, but... hey, look at that data point...that’s kind of interesting.”

“I want this report immediately, but... now that I’ve got it, I don’t really have time to look at it.”

“I want to use data to make better decisions, but... I want to prove my intelligence by making decisions based on my wits and superior intuition.”

“I’m comfortable analyzing data in Excel, but... I don’t want to be labeled an ‘Excel jockey’.”

“I want to access data without a technical resource, but... I don’t want to learn SQL because that’s for technical people.”

“I want a feature-rich analytics tool, but... My powerful analytics tool is too complex to use.”

“I want a dashboard that summarizes my business or functional area, but... I don’t want to feel limited in what information I get to see.”

“I want a sexy data visualization and an interface like my favorite iPad app, but... this is supposed to look like a serious business tool.”

“I want a predictive model, but... I don’t trust black box models when a result doesn’t align with my understanding.”

“I want to run scenario analyses on my data to make better decisions, but... I don’t believe the analysis can account for the complexity of my business.”

“I love geographic maps and network diagrams, but... it is hard to see patterns or find insights from these types of visualizations.”

In a sense, each of these conflicts represents an opportunity to innovate to solve a persistent problem in our data viz and analysis business. Find a way to satisfy the initial desire without suffering the assumed consequence, and you’ve got a chance to delight users of data.