2007 IEEE Visualization Conference - Highlights and Reflections

Jock, Chris and I recently attended the IEEE Visualization Conference where we presented a paper on Tableau's ShowMe feature. The conference was one of the highlights of the year to me. I sense a growing recognition that visual analysis is key to many businesses, fields and communities. It is also heartening to hear so many positive remarks about Tableau and its technology.

For most users, Tableau Software just does the right thing. However, automatically choosing defaults for data visualizations is a challenging problem that has been researched for many years. Fortunately for Tableau, one of our first employees was Jock Mackinlay, whose thesis in the 1986 pioneered automated graphic design. We use many ideas from Jock's early work, but have enhanced them with many subtle and important innovations. If you want to learn more about how things work under the hood, read our paper. Expect more technology in this area from Tableau in the future.

ShowMe is an example of what makes Tableau different than other data visualization products. Most analysts are not expert graphic designers, and shouldn't need to become one to use visual analysis tools. If people spend all their time in awkward dialog boxes and multi-step wizards in order to make things look right, the less time they have to think about the problem they are trying to solve.

Our presentation fit well into the broader theme of the conference - Visualization for the Masses. Unfortunately, data visualization tools are still underutilized. There is tremendous opportunity to improve the way ordinary people access and understand their data. There are several big trends that I see. First, tools are being designed to better support the work that business users perform daily. Second, many displays look cute, but are puzzling to most people.

Tools such as Tableau strive to present the data clearly, and not use gratuitous graphics or wacky visual metaphors. Of course, the visualizations should be fun, engaging, and memorable; they should show information in evocative ways that encourage creative problem solving.

Finally, an emerging trend is collaborative data analysis. In almost every business, groups of people work together to solve problems. The collective intelligence of an organization is much greater than the sum of its parts. Tableau Server is our first product targeted at groups working together. We are very excited by the possibilities in this area and are hard at work enhancing this product line.

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