BusinessWeek put out an interested podcast interview with Angela Shen-Hsieh, CEO of Visual I|O as part of its series on 10 Cutting-Edge Designers. She describes her company as "allowing people to get insights or understanding or perspectives from information." (Hey, we do that too!) From what I’ve seen, Visual I|O has done some innovative things with presenting data. Check out this demonstration of their capabilities--a highly interactive tool to help a baseball manager decide if they should pull a pitcher from the game:
But enough advertising for a competitor. I thought Ms. Shen-Hsieh made some interesting points about the state of the business intelligence industry. For example:
BusinessWeek interviewer: "Do you find that you have to do some education with your clients to convince them that design, information design, visualization techniques are really a valuable tool?"
Ms. Shen-Hsieh: "I feel that is a problem in our industry in that the technical challenges have been so fierce, there have been so many of them, that the focus has been mainly on in the IT world on the collection of the data, the storage of it and the access of it. This next frontier is really at getting at the last 18 inches between the screen and your brain. So we don’t really talk too much about design, we talk about the problems and how this addresses the problems."
Well put. We’ve written before about the failure of business intelligence to live up to promises.
I do take issue with Ms. Shen-Hsieh when she dismisses Excel as a tool for visualizing information (and the blatant set-up by the interviewer):
Interviewer: "Excel spreadsheets and pie chiarts just don’t seem to be up to the challenge of solving corporate problems today, in part because they can’t address all the complex parameters that some of these decisions involve. Is the static nature of those visualization tools also a problem?"
Ms. Shen-Hsieh: "I think the lack of interactivity is the problem; I think the lack of business-focuses, problem-focused, solution-focused visualization is the problem...In the most simpliest terms, if you think of Excel, you’ve got an x-axis and y-axis, so you basically have two dimensions of data that you are looking at at any one time. But a complex problem is going to have lots of dimensions that you need to consider. That’s what visualization gets you. It gives you a much broader concext besides a flat, tabular, x-y.
It isn’t fair to say Excel can’t do more than two axes. There are many ways to show multiple dimensions, make Excel dynamic, even visually compelling. Granted, it doesn’t come out of the box this way--but any visualization requires some work.