In the last 18-24 months I have been following the data visualization industry to learn more about creating visuals that communicate the key messages from analysis. I have learned a lot, and figured out how to use PowerPoint and Excel graphs to create some of the visuals. I created the Calculators for Visuals to help with the calculations for some of the visuals. My workshop participants find these visuals clear and helpful when communicating their ideas.
But in adapting the ideas from the data viz community to a business setting, I have noticed some key differences that I want to explain in this article. The differences fall into three categories: Tools, Constraints, and Output. Let’s look at each one of these individually.
The data viz industry is creating new tools regularly. Some are tools that add on functionality to Excel, some are alternatives to Excel, and some are programming languages to do analysis and create visuals. It seems like there are new tools or variations on tools every month as this industry gains in popularity.
In a business setting, these tools are usually not helpful for a few reasons. If you want to use a tool that is not plain Excel out of the box, you have to get approval from the IT department to do so. This usually involves a long approval process that most professionals don’t want to bother with. The IT security policies are necessary in corporations, but they limit the tools that can be used. That is why most presenters won’t be able to use plug-ins, add-ins, or alternative tools.
The programming tools may be very powerful, but most business professionals I deal with are already too overworked to take on learning a new programming language. Most of them aren’t programmers, so they know it will be tough to even start. And since it is a new tool, they will run into the IT issues noted above. Corporations also need continuity, so they frown upon solutions like programming tools that only one person knows. If that person leaves that role, the company is at risk if the tool solution needs changes.
How about the latest version of Excel? The new version coming out later this year adds new graph types and other new functions. The data viz community is always using the latest version of Excel. Great for that community, but most corporate staff I deal with won’t see a new version of Office until many years after it is released. I am only now seeing a few clients use Office 2013. And I don’t see companies lining up to implement new versions of Office that will require large investments to install the software, train users, and support them through the transition.
One of the trends in the data viz community has been to offer web-based tools that allow you to create visuals without the tool implementation issues listed above. The approach is to enter your data into the web-based tool that allows you to perform analysis and create your visuals on the web. Take the resulting image and use it in a presentation. Sounds good but it doesn’t work that easily in many corporate settings.
Data security rules at most corporations prevent any corporate data from being entered on a public website. It doesn’t matter who hosts the site and it doesn’t matter if the data is supposedly anonymous, the rules don’t allow it. This is one of the reasons that my Calculators for Visuals is an Excel download file. My clients told me the online calculators were a good idea, but they would never be able to use them because of the data security policies.
The data viz community is also mostly academic or outside of a corporate structure. They can create visuals that have any color, font or design they want. Not so in a corporation. Almost every company I deal with has strict branding rules that are enforced on all visuals. These brand standard constraints prevent many professionals from using tools that don’t give them control over all aspects of the design.
The tools used by the data viz community are, to be expected, focused on visuals that communicate analysis of data. Those visuals are put into academic papers, posters, infographics, presentations, and other media. So the output of the tools needs to be easy to use in all these different settings. For that reason, the most common output is some form of image. That works in these settings, but not so well in a corporate setting.
Images may look nice, but they can’t be easily changed. That is not a problem if you are publishing a paper or poster, but in a corporate setting, it is an issue. It is often the case that a few minutes before a presentation, the senior executive turns to a staff member and asks them to update a graph on a slide with data that has just been received. The executive needs the latest information in her presentation. If that graph is an image, you are out of luck. You don’t have the time to go back to the tool and output another image. Corporate presenters need output that can be changed instantly in the tools they have on a laptop that is not connected to the Internet.
Data viz tools also only focus on one type of visual, graphs. Corporate presentations need many types of visuals, including diagrams, images, and formatted text. Corporate presenters want one tool that can be used to output all of their visuals. They will sacrifice some functionality in order to simplify their lives.
Don’t misunderstand what I am saying in this article. I appreciate the ideas and insight I have gained from following the data viz community and will continue to listen to the great ideas. You should too. But when it comes to implementing those ideas in a corporate setting, realize that the constraints, tool limitations, and need for flexible output may not allow you to use what you are reading about. I will continue to deliver customized workshops to help corporate presenters apply best practices within the constraints they must observe, write books like Select Effective Visuals to help all presenters select the best visual based on the message they are communicating, and provide tools like the Calculators for Visuals that make the calculations of some of these visuals easier.