Bricks by Stephen Few

Stephen Few’s latest newsletter outlines an innovative way of displaying quantitative data geospatially: bricks. Go read the article, it’s really interesting. What do I think of bricks? Well, I implemented some bricks in Tableau.

Bricks or circles

To do this, I created some custom shapes. In Tableau it would be very difficult to implement shapes in the complete way suggested by Stephen – it would be very hard to deal with outliers in the way he suggests. However, this is a starting point and you can download my workbook here.
What do I think of bricks?

Appropriate only for “known” geospatial dimensions

They might only be appropriate where the geospatial dimension is already familiar. Using bricks on US States is effective because we already know which state is where. However, using bricks when the location is less familiar will not be as effective. When we use circles, we instinctively understand that the centre of the circle represents the exact location of the mark. But where’s the centre of the brick? Is it the centre of the 9-mark grid, or the brick itself?

Occlusion is a big problem

Look at Florida above. In the circles chart. there are lots of overlapping circles but I can still get a very good idea of the size of each city. With the bricks, however, the picture is extremely confused.

Is the problem significant enough that it warrants a new type of display?

I’ve said before that every visualisation is a compromise: the purpose in visualising data is to reveal patterns. Details should be available on demand. Also, the circle is a comfortable metaphor for the majority of people. Bricks will require training, or clear instructions, to understand them. This is fine if you are in, say, a closed corporate environment, where you can reach everyone, but not good if you are publishing on the web to a wide audience. This is related to what psychologists call schema and is why it is sometimes preferable to use pie charts rather than, say, stacked bars: familiarity means people will engage more quickly.

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”?