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An Analogy for Data Visualization



Ryan Sleeper

How Tableau’s Iron Viz contest imitates (data viz) life

The practice of data visualization requires more than dragging and dropping to create different charts – it requires balancing steak and sizzle, or data and design, just like Tableau’s Iron Viz competition.

Hi, this is Ryan with Playfair Data TV. And in this video, I’m going to be sharing an analogy of data visualization, which has really kind of structured how I approach data visualization in general, and that analogy is Tableau’s Iron Viz Championship. If you’re not familiar with this contest, it’s held live at the Tableau conference each year between three finalists. Those three finalists are each given the same data set, and then they have 20 minutes up on a huge stage with huge projection monitors in front of thousands of people to create the best dashboard that they can.

Here on the screen, just to help provide some perspective on this, I’ve got a few pictures from the year that I competed in the Iron Viz, which was in 2013. I have to admit, that’s feeling very old to me at the moment. Some of these pictures are starting to look like they’re from the ’70s because this contest really does get bigger and better every year. It’s amazing what the contestants are able to come up with.

Last year, this contest was held in front of 17,000 people in New Orleans, Louisiana, in the US, and everybody had glow sticks and there’s music blaring. These are just a few images from my year. You’re doing every single move up there on the stage. Everybody’s watching your every click of the mouse as you’re building things in Tableau. You’ve got these huge projection monitors behind you.

The three finalists are up there with their what are called sous-vizzers. These are people that are kind of helping you behind the scenes and coaching you on your workbooks. And like I mentioned, they’ve got laser lights, and they just make it a big show.

And the reason this has become an analogy for me in the practice of data visualization is I’m amazed that those three finalists up there on the stage have been very thoroughly vetted. These are some of the best Tableau users in the world.

To get into this contest, you have to win one of three feeder contests held throughout the year. There’s usually 100 people trying to enter this contest to get up there and earn their spot on the stage. So the people up there are already very, very good at Tableau, but Tableau still makes this a show. They still have the laser lights and the music and all the kind of fun stuff to make it very engaging.

The data and the people up on stage, in my opinion, would be enough to stand on their own. There’s enough substance there. But Tableau still makes it a big show, and that’s kind of how I think of the practice of data visualization. It’s similar to another analogy you might have heard with the steak and sizzle. If the data would be the steak or the substance, but the sizzle would be that show and making it engaging.

And again, this is how I think of data visualization. You can’t have data visualization without data. It’s in the word. That’s obvious. But I try to balance that data and substance by making it engaging. And I think of that as the design aspect, way to bring end users into your visualization, make it more engaging. I think it’s very critical to balance those two. It doesn’t matter how sound your analysis is if nobody’s looking at it, if nobody’s engaged with it and wants to figure out how to take an action on it.

So later in the strategy track, we’ll be talking more about design and balancing not just the data aspect, but also the engagement aspect. And for me, that process and that approach to data visualization was rooted in this analogy. Tableau’s Iron Viz Championship itself kind of motivated me and made me learn that it’s not enough just to have the data. You also have to add in a little bit of sizzle with it.

This has been Ryan with Playfair Data TV – thanks for watching!