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Having been at Tableau for less than a year, I had no idea what to expect from the customer conference. I’d heard lots of positive stories from my coworkers in the days before we shipped ourselves down to Vegas, though, all about how excited our customers are to talk to Tableau employees, give us product feedback, and get to know us a little better. I knew, though, that I’d just have to pack my bags, head down to Las Vegas, and find out for myself.
The stories were all true. It was nothing short of delightful to talk to every one of the folks I’d met and hear about the things Tableau does (or doesn’t do) for them. In many cases, I left with a sense of awe about what our software was helping people do. From talking with customers and attending the talks at the conference, I came away with two ideas about the current Tableau zeitgeist:
Let human brains do what human brains are good at and let computers do what computers are good at.
As a software tester, I come back to this theme time and time again. The raison d’etre of any sort of technology, including computers, is to make our lives easier. It’s often my job to remind a development team that this is what software exists for. I also make use of automation where it’s appropriate, so that I and my coworkers can use our brains to test software instead of spending time on things that computers could do for us.
I was delighted, then, to hear this message in almost every presentation at the conference. I heard Stephen Few and Jock Mackinlay talk about how to take into account what human visual systems are good at in order to make a data visualization easier for readers to understand at a glance. So much of the Developers on Stage session was about showcasing new features like chloropleth maps and better geocoding that have Tableau do what computers are good at in order to make a viz that a person can make fine tweaks to, instead of forcing customers to do a lot of grunt work and data entry. I heard a lot from customers about how intuitive and easy to use Tableau is, and it’s true that we work hard behind the scenes to make it work with people’s brains instead of against them.
We need to democratize data, so that people can make their own conclusions and be informed for themselves.
I’ve been thinking a lot about thinking lately. If you follow me on twitter, you saw me posting with an #immanuelkant hashtag, and you might have been wondering what on earth an eighteenth-century philosopher has to do with data visualization. My spouse recently sent me this essay by Immanuel Kant, which makes, among others, the point that in order for people to really enlighten themselves about the world around them, they can’t just take some authority’s word on everything- if they really want to know where they stand on an issue, they have to dig in, read different sources, discuss viewpoints with each other, and think for themselves.
Last week, I happened by the Occupy Seattle protests, and I saw something that I had never seen before: protestors holding signs that had bar and line graphs on them. Those folks had taken the time to do data analysis (or find someone else’s), look at it, draw conclusions, decide that it was relevant to their interests, and share it. The people behind California Common Sense have done the same thing using Tableau Public. I saw countless customer presentations that were about doing the same thing, inside their organizations and out. Cory Doctorow touched on this theme in his keynote when he said that if we all knew what our personal data was going to be used for down the road, we could make better choices about when to give it away. Christian Chabot explicitly stated in his keynote that the people who have questions about data should be empowered to find the answers. There will always be more data to explore, more answers to find, and more decisions to be made, and we all need to be able to inform ourselves about our world in order to make any sense of it whatsoever.
As I mulled these two points over, I realized that they make up a lot of what it is about my work that gets me out of the house and over to Tableau HQ in the morning. I can’t wait to see you all in San Diego next year, and hear what you and our presenters and my coworkers are all thinking about then.