After another awesome lunch, today’s general session was The Value of Visualization by Tableau’s CTO, Pat Hanrahan. Pat is a very engaging speaker, which suits him since he’s also a professor at Stanford University.
He opened with a quick story of how he worked with Larry Page, one of the founder’s of Google. He likened Larry’s passion for search when the industry was young to Tableau’s passion for visualization.

Pat believes there are three primary drivers of the value of visualization and set about sharing fun examples and stories to demonstrate it.

  • Visualizations let people solve problems and make decisions – Pat challenged our lunch-laden brains to a number game. He listed the numbers 1-9 and said pick any three to add to 15. In the game, people would alternate till 15 is met or the numbers are chosen. He then put up a picture of tic-tac-toe and showed how you could play this same game over the grid and it becomes much easier to solve. His point to find the best but most simple visualization, which may not always be the coolest.
  • Visualizations should be interactive and drive action – A psychology experiment done years ago showed that people matching abstract objects were twice as successful when they could interact with it. This has been a key product driver for Tableau. Most charting wizards end with a chart. Tableau doesn’t want any “ends.”
  • Visualizations should be used collaboratively – We intuitively know working in groups is powerful. They diversify knowledge and provide checks and balances. Pat’s example this time was a study done that watched groups problem solve an emergency escape route both with and without visual aids. It was much more difficult to do with discussion only. To make collaboration more successful, Pat recommends adding context with the use of comments and annotations.

Whenever the Tableau team looks at adding new features and functionality, they don’t first think of technology or looks, they ask themselves how will this add value to the decision making process. Pat summed it all up by quoting a scientific study that found visualizations make it easier to solve problems and make better decisions. That’s valuable!

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