Critiquing other people’s Tableau visualisations

Tableau dashboard with and without design

Tableau’s sample files wouldn’t look so good if they weren’t well designed

Alistair Knock posted a great question by Moose Peterson on Google+  about feedback on user photographs on the web:why do most people just make anodyne comments along the lines of “Nice!” when they probably have some constructive criticism they are holding back?

This got me thinking. How do I respond to seeing Tableau Public workbooks?

The more I use Tableau Public, the higher and higher I believe the bar has to be set for a successful Tableau Public visualisation. You must think like a web designer when publishing to Tableau Public. Layout, fonts, interactivity, colour, etc: these consume vast tracts of web designers’ time for a reason. Just as a badly designed web page is a disastrous advert for your brand, so too is a weak Tableau Public viz. I’ll be exploring these issues in more detail in my session, “Expose yourself with Tableau Public”, at the Tableau Customer Conference in Las Vegas in October.

An anodyne retweet of my own

What is my own reaction to seeing Tableau Public visualisations? If I like it, I’ll comment on the blog, or tweet it. Good work deserves to be praised. What about my critical thoughts? Believe me, I see areas for improvement in almost all the visualisations I see; some recent popular Tableau Public vizzes by well known members of the Tableau community have been, in my opinion, really badly designed. Have I told them? No.

If I think your workbook needs redesigning or tweaking, generally, I say nothing. Why is that?

Because I appreciate effort – at least the author is using Tableau, and having a go. I wouldn’t want them to stop that. I think most authors just want to get their data out there. They aren’t interested in someone they probably don’t know dissing what might have taken them hours to create.

Because I question my own opinions: on whose authority am I an expert in Tableau Public? What if my opinions are wrong? I don’t get much criticism of my own work; I get almost universal praise. This is brilliant, but what if everyone else is also just hiding their critical thoughts about what I do? I think I’m pretty good at this Tableau-data-viz thing (actually, I’m quite confident I am good at it), but I don’t know for sure. Stephen Few is famous for his approach of calling things exactly as he sees them. If he has a problem with your work, he’ll share that with you and with the world, and justify those opinions. As a result he is widely read and widely respected. He has also stimulated many great debates as both his supporters and detractors explore the issues he raises.

Because I’m not sure I can express my opinions in a constructive manner. Stephen Few writes excellently, justifying his opinions. I am not sure I can critique well enough to cause the author to reflect rather than get angry.

Reading through the many thoughtful comments on Moose Peterson’s G+ post, I think I should rethink my approach.

What do you think? Would you be comfortable critiquing others’ Tableau Public workbooks? Would you behave differently on the internet as you do face-to-face? Would your freedom to critique others change when you become a Tableau employee (as I will be in 6 weeks)? How would you react if I started saying “nice viz, but your dashboard layout’s all wrong”?

7 thoughts on “Critiquing other people’s Tableau visualisations”

  1. I’m no tableau expert, but as with photos, there’s a way to constructively criticise positively – though I appreciate its hard. Maybe not criticise the existing layout, but emphasise what a change might positively bring.

    But as with photos, different people see different things in visualisations, and you have to be sure that your proposed change enhances what their original aim was in visualising. Certainly groups exist for photo critique all around the web with the aim of improving the submitter’s knowledge by gathering different perspectives, but that’s an opt in thing, rather than unsolicited.

    If you feel uncomfortable directly critiquing people’s tableau work, one option would be to setup a group that people can submit to for active positive critique – thus you get to advise and people actively want to improve and receive criticism.

  2. Andy,

    Very “nice” blog post. However …

    Looking forward to taking in your presentation at TCC2011, and offering a kindly worded critique, though it will be difficult to find the right words.

    One other “why is that” that I think is worth exploring, as well as coming up with a way to work it through, is this: there are likely many Tableau practitioners/experts in the wild who are not at liberty because of their employment situations, to share their excellent work or provide public comment on the work of others. In fact, I know some very good practitioners who are generally not at liberty to disclose which analytics tools they use in their work, Tableau or otherwise.

    It is a supreme blessing for them and for those among us who can be more revealing, that you and Richard Leeke and Joe Mako, and Steve Wexler, are able to devote so much energy to the good of the whole.

    Kudos, kudos, many thanks, and as always,

    MANY BLESSINGS!
    Peace and All Good!
    Michael W Cristiani
    empower MediaMarketing

  3. Mark Twain once said advice is like the time on your wristwatch: Offer it when it’s asked for.

    But I’d say as an expert, you can also go a bit farther with this; when criticism becomes simply a matter of taste, you might want to let it slide. When it comes to matters of functionality, you should chime in. I think this is because people who use Tableau are inherently looking for “better.”

  4. Andy makes a key point here I think. All of us in this field want to be supportive so we all run the risk of only every hearing praise for our work (which is lovely) but this means we’ll seldom hear anything which might advance our skills or broaden our awareness of possibly equally valid approaches.

    I believe many people are open to the idea of actively offering work up for critique in the interest of hearing balanced and constructive suggestions on how they feel that visualisation might be produced.

    I also believe that there are those who are prepared to take time out to offer their opinions on work that has been submitted. As Andy said, I think many of us would be just as nervous being critics that we offer opinion as just that: opinion. It’s not right or wrong – just opinion offered up with the same respect and humility as the person submitting the work in the first place.

    Perhaps the bright and shiny world of Google+ would provide the most straightforward way for this to be done?

  5. Thanks for all your comments; they’ve really helped me consider what to do with my constructive criticism in the future. Al – your idea is great; maybe when I’m at Tableau, we could setup a “Viz makeover” forum where people explicitly post workbooks to see what people think.

  6. There have been a couple of times on reddit where people have asked for feedback and I’ve been happy to give constructive criticism. I do this because it’s what I would want if I posted the same question. I’ll go as far to point out small, nit-picky, things that catch my eye because those things generally drift by the author unnoticed.

    This usually ends well; with a genuine thank you and an educational moment. We are all busy, but if someone asked for feedback, don’t throw out a “awesome!”, instead, find something to comment on and possible improve. In the same breathe, if you do see something great, call it out specifically, like “I really think that color pallet displays the data effectively”

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