Are you using information effectively?

Have you noticed that sometimes it’s hard to get your point across? Do you find you’re trying to do the right thing with your information, but the organization just won’t cooperate?

We think this is happening too often in the companies the Juice Community lives and works in. And we want to do something to change it.

We want to better understand if we’re helping you be more effective in your workplace as an information evangelist. To make this possible, we’d like to ask (yea, even beg) you to complete a short 10 question survey about how information presentation is making progress in your company and if you feel alone or supported by the info-viz pundits out there.

But you might ask "what’s in it for me?" Well, to begin with, we’re going to demonstrate how to summarize qualitative survey information. You’ll get some great examples of how to apply non-traditional charting styles to problems within your organization.

However, we can’t do it alone; we need you to complete the survey. And if we don’t get enough respondents, the results won’t lend themselves to what we have planned.

So what are you waiting for? Fill out the survey here and help us help you help us. And what does Gilligan’s Island have to do with information presentation? Well, you’ll just have to take the survey to find out!

Update: The survey is now officially closed. Thanks to all who responded. We’ll have the results out in a few days.

Google Presentations and the Right Tool for the Job

Last week, Google released Presentations to fill out their portfolio of online, collaborative document types (they already offer text documents and spreadsheets). The Google folks were kind enough to include us in a round of beta testing a few weeks back, giving us a chance to preview this application, find bugs, and offer feedback.

If you give Google Presentations a try, you may be struck by its limitations. It doesn’t offer much flexibility in creating presentations, especially when compared to Microsoft PowerPoint or Apple Keynote. The best you can do is create simple text slides on a few predefined templates. On the other hand, it offers unique capabilities you don’t get with desktop applications. In particular, we were impressed with how easy it was to share a presentation live online.

I have started to wonder whether calling Google Presentations a "web-based competitor to PowerPoint" or "a PowerPoint clone" was simplistic and misguided. Lumping together software tools is a natural reaction to long lists of features and techno-terminology. Software vendors don’t make it any easier to distinguish the differences when they attempt to convince us that their solution is the complete, do-everything tool to satisfy all your [presentation/data analysis/communication/networking] needs.

So, we assume our software tools fall into neat buckets. We assume the tool we are using today do everything we need "well enough." And we assume any new tool is a direct competitor to what we use. As a result, we are severely limited in what we can achieve.

For a long time, I was a fan and a heavy user of PowerPoint. It did what I needed. Perhaps I told myself that what it did was all I needed. A while ago, I had to break off this exclusive relationship.

Now, I find myself using a bunch of different tools to communicate information. On the one hand, this has made my life more complicated. There are new applications to learn and the hassle of moving documents around. But in other ways, it’s easier. I use tools designed for the task at hand. And I have opened up a whole new realm of what is possible in terms of organization, polish, and audience engagement.

The table below shows the activities involved in business presentations. For each activity, I have a rough assessment of how well PowerPoint, Keynote, and Google Presentation perform. I also list the current Juice toolset.

Analytics Roundup

Nielsen/NetRatings’ August social media numbers: Not much change
Interesting post I stumbled on related to Nielsen’s web analytics service. Several references to "juicy" or "juiciness".

Inbox Zero
Merlin Mann on cleaning your e-mail inbox.

The New York Times > Home Prices Across the Nation
The most interesting / important part may be the talking head in the lower left, should you be annotating your reports with video?

Introduction to Statistical Thought—free ebook
1) explains how statisticians think about data
2) introduces modern statistical computing
3) as lots of real examples

Analytics Roundup: Naming matters

Igor | Naming companies, naming products
Definitive essay on naming from the company that inspired our name.

Vox Populi: Best practices for file naming | 43 Folders
One approach to a tough problem that we all have.

Seth’s Blog: Worst powerpoint slide ever used by a CEO
Pretty bad, but surely not the worst.

Extreme data presentation in a different realm.

Help Save Your Local GUI Jock

We all know at least one GUI Jock. That one guy who knows how to, say, run a complex query on the content management system, or export data from the annoying sales database front-end or actually get new data into what qualifies as "the system" where you work. He is a master of tools that appear obscure, but are in fact just a pain in the neck. He is not writing firmware for the space shuttle; he is changing the background gradients in your marketing dashboard.

The GUI Jock is a paradoxical figure. Indispensable and yet undervalued, he owes his livelihood to the ferocity of the beast he tames. The sheer number and complexity of pull-down menus, check-boxes, obscure options, software bugs, and poor user interface choices created by an external software vendor. The GUI Jock conquers them all—he is a human compiler who receives requests in the loose and informal language of the outsider and compiles them to the standards demanded by expensive enterprise software.

But how did he find himself in this position? Ironically, he may have fallen into this unfortunate role by being good at a few ad hoc requests which he likely completed under the assumption that he would soon be moving on to more interesting work. But now he is stuck in a trap that he helped build and of which others are afraid. He is there to fall on the grenade that is lousy software, poor documentation, and bad process so the rest of the organization can go about its job without another hassle. The GUI Jock suffers so we do not.

What can be done?

In my experience the GUI Jock is usually not happy with his lot. If you know him you are probably aware that he can be a grouch and he has probably sighed in your presence more than once (if you don’t know him, he might be you). But can we set him free?

A typical response is training. Grab a conference room for a few hours, set up a projector and show the junior staff just how to hold that chair while taming the beast known as the "InsiteDynaMetrix CollaboStream(tm)". The juniors sit and nod, happy to have such a big block of their day accounted for. In my experience, the success rate of this approach is woefully low. It can backfire, basically serving to train attendees to know who exactly the GUI Jock is and that they should funnel all relevant requests directly to his inbox.

To protect itself, the organization demands that the GUI Jock stay in his role. He is the only person who will save himself. He has a few options:

  • Sucker a new employee into the role. New employees are eager to please and crave the recognition of value that comes with being a GUI Jock. They are also too naive to see the quicksand.
  • Increase the friction for people who lean on him. Ask for forms to be filled out, demand detailed requirements, and delay in delivering results. With enough process, these people may decide to serve themselves.
  • Apply to graduate school.

Diaper Genies for analysts (i.e. simple tools and tricks to help you work better)

With a new baby, you come to appreciate the small inventions that make a big difference. The Baby Bjorn, the Diaper Genie, the baby monitor: these are simple, well-designed technologies that can save your sanity.

Which got me to thinking: What are the Diaper Genies for data analysts? What are the little tools that solve nagging problems in a light, simple, intuitive way? I put together a starter list below of a few of my favorites. The thing that’s amazing about these tools and tricks is that they have changed my usage behaviors. By simply eliminating a few clicks or keystrokes, I work differently and more efficiently.

  • MWSnap is a bit of freeware by Mirek Wojtowicz that lets you easily capture images on your screen. Pre-MWSnap, I often found myself using the Windows Ctrl-PrtSc function when making presentations. Then I would have to chop down the full screen capture in an image editing program. This application lets you grab just the part of the screen you need, then copy and paste it right into PowerPoint.
  • Keyboard shortcuts in Excel. Keyboarding both saves you time and expands your ability to work effectively with large data sets. There are two kinds of keyboarding that we teach: 1) using the Alt key with letters to navigate the menu structure (e.g. Alt-i-r to insert rows, Alt-e-s-v to paste special). 2) using the Ctrl and Shift keys with the arrows to move around and grab blocks of data. See Chris’ keyboarding game. Everyone rolls their eyes when we harp on keyboarding as an essential element to being effective with Excel; I’ve seen too much value from the skill to care.
  • Excel Pivot Tables."What’s easy about PivotTables?!," you say. Admittedly, this tool doesn’t exactly fall under the category of simple and quick to learn. In fact, we are still looking for an intuitive way to teach Pivot Tables. Here are a few good tutorials I’ve come across. In my experience, you have to put up with a short and mildly painful learning curve; it’s worth the trip. I’ve seen many analysts who still rely on vlookup functions when a simple Pivot Table would let them manipulate their data far more quickly. We are developing a post that offers our tips and tricks on working with Pivot Tables.
  • Voice IM (e.g. Google Talk, Skype). There is a form of conversation that requires less focused discussion than a phone call but more verbal interaction than instant messaging. This is where the voice talk features on many IM clients become valuable. Often Chris and I will open a Google Talk call while we work on something together. Long silences suddenly feel acceptable since it’s free.
  • Windows Alt-Tab. This key combination gives you the ability to flip between applications and can be a huge time saver. I’ve found it especially useful when I’m pulling data from application and dropping it into another.
  • Faster web browsing with Firefox. Mozilla’s Firefox browser touts its security, pop-up blocking, and extensions as differentiators. The features I care about are those that help me manage the information better. Ctrl-f gives a ’find’ box in the bottom of your browser where you can start typing instantly. It jumps you right to the part of the page with your word/phrase. Tabbed browsing and the ability to jump between tabs (Ctrl-PgUp or -PgDn), close tabs (Ctrl-w), or open a new tabs (Ctrl-t) lets me work with half a dozen web sites at the same time.
  • Google Desktop. The new version has a feature where you can press Ctrl twice and it pops a search box. Not only is this a better tool for finding files than Windows offers, but it can quickly find applications. You may never have to go to that Windows Start button again!

We don’t claim to be productivity gurus like Merlin Mann of 43 folders or the folks at Lifehack, but I think you’ll appreciate how these tools seem to scratch an itch then mercifully leave you alone. They give you a sense of control that is about the opposite of MS Word deciding how your bullets should look.