How many data points are too many? In praise of the small multiple.

My latest Huffington Post article (published Wed 28 Jan) discusses how amazing our visual system is at seeing very granular levels of detail. Here’s a rather shaky GIF of the different views going from 1 data point to over 10,000:

howmanymarks narrow
Click image to see a bigger version

The inspiration for the column and this post was Ann K Emery’s 2015 data resolutions. I’ve always been a big fan of small multiples, but her specific statement to “do more small multiples” triggered my efforts to break the data out of the charts I’d been making with the Citibike data.

There have been lots of posts celebrating small multiples recently. My favourite is “A Big Article About Wee Things” by Propublica. Go read it! Go on.

What I really need to emphasise is that no single view is the “right” one. Theere’s no such thing as the “right” view. Being able to cycle through these very quickly in Tableau is immensely powerful – each view teases something else out of the data as you feel your way to insight. Each view shows something different and if you can see 30 views in 5 minutes, who knows what insights your data will reveal? What’s certain is that we can reflect on just how complex and yet clear 10,000+ marks appear:

All 10,246 marks in one place!
All 10,246 marks in one place!

3 ages of data viz?

I’ve got this idea for a future theme looking at “3 ages of data viz”. I want your thoughts. Is there something in this idea? Am I right? Are there more? What’s the NEXT age going to bring? What does this teach us about dataviz?

Age 1: The Excel disaster (pre 2000)

(image from

The early spreadsheet designers got excited about graphics and gave us 3-d exploded pie charts. If only they’d read some theory about effective dataviz maybe we’d not have had 35+ years of fighting back against dataviz disasters. To be fair to Excel, as you can see above, the defaults weren’t really that bad, given the limits of graphics cards in the day. Unfortunately, people got too excited about the 3d options.

Age 2: the Stephen Few fightback (2000-2010)


Stephen Few took on the spreadsheet behemoths in the first decade of this century. He made us all see sense and put science-backed best practice on the pedestal. People saw the light and visual tools began to ditch the dross in favour of charts that actually work.

Age 3: the creative years (2010-present)

What’s the top data dog (

The problem with Stephen Few’s approach is that people found his approach, well, boring. Unarguably his approach was functionally correct and just right for operational business dashboards. But many people were left unmoved. They found that following his approach didn’t engage people. As data journalism flourished and infographics exploded, there was a realization that a balance needed to be struck.

At the extreme end we found that people like David McCandless found success with their design-trumps-function approach  but others, such as Alberto Cairo (see his Tapestry Conference slides) and Andy Kirk (8 hats) pushed the need to ENGAGE as well as INFORM.

Tell me your thoughts

My ideas are fluid around this. I’m trying to make the point that we’re in a great place with the combining fields of creative power and effective design. What else do I need to know?


Seven years ago this week….

I paid for my first Tableau license 7 years ago today (15 Jan 2008). To say that changed my life is not an understatement.
I was a struggling data analyst using outdated, unsupported, inflexible BI tools provided by an underfunded, overworked IT department. I had a team of people who would spend 3 weeks producing 1 report for 1 faculty at the University of Oxford.
In desperation I searched the web for anything that might help me escape these shackles. I found this post by Stephen Few and clicked the link to this small software company’s website.
By the end of that afternoon, I had produced more useful analytics than we could do in a month. That was the afternoon my life changed. I put together a use case. Here it is:
The notes I made for my business case to buy 1 license of Tableau Desktop
The notes I made for my business case to buy 1 license of Tableau Desktop
Note that one of my risks is “not enough functionality” (this was v3.5). That was true but what it did was better than any single piece of software I have ever used. The great news is that Tableau is now a super-powerful machine.
Note also that the notes are written on an Oracle notepad. Ha! Take that, Oracle!
Looking back on my initial work, I am amazed I was pleased with what I was producing.
Some of my first work with Tableau
Some of my first work with Tableau
My experienced eyes see these views as unsophisticated and untidy. But the emotion I remember at the time was one of joy. I was playing with my data. I was asking and answering questions as quickly as I could think of them. I was unleashed.
I stayed at the University of Oxford for 4 great years. Over those years at Oxford, I began blogging, organised the first Tableau user group, and spoke at Tableau conferences. I was having more fun using a piece of software than I could have imagined.
You’re not supposed to enjoy using business applications. That’s just wrong. But this was FUN. So much that I would use Tableau at home for personal projects. Can you imagine using other BI tools at home for fun?
It. Just. Doesn’t. Happen.
My amazing farewell cake from my colleagues at Oxford.
My amazing farewell cake from my colleagues at Oxford.
In 2011 Tableau was growing in Europe and I joined the company; it’s 6th European employee. My first desk was shared with a photocopier. It’s been just as much fun ever since and I am grateful to have had this opportunity. I’ve made amazing friends at work. I’ve travelled to amazing places. And I’ve been inspired by the incredible community this product has produced.
I now get  visibility of the product roadmap – I am very confident the next 7 years are going to be as amazing as the first 7.