For data’s sake have some fun


We live in times when data analysis as a career is very much in the limelight; Nate Silver, Data Science, Big Data have all helped glamorise data analysis. However data analysis has the perception of being a dull, rather lifeless job – hours pouring over spreadsheets looking at numbers, or creating complex models using lines and lines of code; whether or not this is true will largely depend on which tools you’re using.

I recently heard Tom Brown of The Information Lab, for whom I work, talk about his career and how he ended up using Tableau. Tom described his life before Tableau, using other BI products, as “dull” and this echoes what I hear from a lot of people I speak to who have started using the new breed of Data Analysis tools  and who have started to have fun with data for the first time. My own career started in SAS and SQL, I enjoyed my job but I don’t remember ever calling it fun, for me my career only started becoming fun when I picked up Alteryx.

So what makes these tools fun?

Tableau and Alteryx aren’t the only fun data analysis tools I’m sure, but they’re the ones I’m most familiar with and so from there I can speak more generally about what characteristics they share, and where other BI software manufacturers should look if they want to emulate some of the success of Tableau (and increasingly so Alteryx) at capturing users imagination and creativity.

1. Ease of use

First and foremost to be fun software has to be easy to learn and intuitive, it has to have a level of ease of use that means users can dive right in and start using the product
immediately. It has to have a clean fresh interface that removes the complexity from the data analysis and breaks down the analysis into a set of simple, repeatable steps. Tableau achieves this by giving the user just one screen to build visualisations on and a simple drag and drop interface. Alteryx on the other hand takes a modular approach by providing tools, which are all configured in the same way, that are dragged onto a canvas and joined together to form a data flow. Neither tool has any complex code for users to write, again increasing simplicity.

2. Remove the mundane

No one likes repetitive or mundane actions, and they can quickly take any fun away from using BI tools. I think everyone has experienced the frustration of using Excel and having to copy/paste cells to move them around, or having to write multiple formula repeating the same thing for several files. Alteryx and Tableau both contain several neat shortcuts that remove any mundaneness; simple things like using wildcards in Alteryx to bring in multiple files with the same structure in an input tool are a real blessing when needed.

3. Enable creativity

To really become fun though tools must go further than just be easy to use, they must give their users a freedom to create something. Tableau and Alteryx have this in spades; I could ask 10 Alteryx experts to write solve a problem and they would all use different tools and approaches, no module would look the same. This is part of the appeal for me, solving a problem isn’t about finding the right way, it’s about find a way. Similarly with Tableau, as the recent Iron Viz challenges have seen, a subject can be tackled in many different ways leading to some informative and visually stunning visualisations. User communities that share their work and grow together as they collaborate are also key to having some fun, and the Alteryx Gallery and Tableau Public both enable this. You only need to look at some of the apps and dashboards on their to know that users are really having fun with these products.

4. Mass appeal

Data analysis and BI has mass appeal, Excel is the most widely used BI tool and shows what mass appeal can provide. So to truly become fun for everyone tools must go beyond the niche of Data Scientists / Data Analysts and appeal to everyone with a data background, usability plays a part in this but also they must solve a range of problems across a wide range of industries. As people use a tool to solve a diverse set of problems their enjoyment grows.

Why is having fun with data important?

I’m talking about fun for a reason, not only because I think it’s important for people to feel a sense of worth in what they do and to go to work with a smile, but also because having fun
leads to innovation and growth. If people are having fun with data we’ll learn more about what it can offer, and build richer models and better insights. Part time data journalists,
working at the weekend, will explore public datasets and produce insight and intelligence to improve policy and inform the wider public about key issues. The universe of data is growing exponentially, every gadget and tech now includes an array of data tracking, but the skills to interpret and work with data are still catching up. BI and analytics companies have a responsibility to provide fun tools so that children don’t just experience Excel at school – the world is more fun than Excel. Believe me, I’ve seen and used the tools of the future and they’re fun.

Full disclosure: my love of data and analytics, and in particular Alteryx and Tableau, have led me to work for The Information Lab, an Alteryx and Tableau partner and reseller.

 

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