For most of their history, business intelligence (BI) tools and analytics applications have been designed for and used by highly trained computer scientists and business analysts. Today, with the rise of big data and the demand to push ever more analytics capabilities further down the decision-making food chain, most companies in the BI space are working feverishly to develop simple self-service interfaces that allow line-of-business (LOB) decision makers to conduct their own analysis.
Many vendors offer self-service tools and visual analytics, but these tools sets are often intended for business analysts and power users. Visualization provider Tableau Software provides users less skilled in analytics with the data slicing and dicing abilities typically reserved for their more analytics-focused colleagues.
Some would argue that Tableau is not a BI platform – and they would be right. Tableau does not offer a data warehouse or a development platform on which to build analytics apps.
“In the traditional world, step one was/is to build these semantic layers, build all this meta data that can answer all the possible questions a user has and then build reports off of that,” said Francois Ajenstat, Tableau’s senior director of product management. “With Tableau, it’s a little bit flipped around where you connect directly to the data and you build the meta data as you do your analysis.”
With the release of Tableau 8.2, the company is trying to define what may prove to be the next big thing in visual analytics: storytelling. Called Story Points, this new feature allows average users to interact with data in real time and on the fly without having to turn to IT or another set of technical support people to remodel and rebuild the graphics they are using to visualize their data.
The way it’s done today, business users have to ask either their BI folks or a power user for help loading more data sets and then combine them to make a new slide or graphic. Tableau’s tools allow average users to filter and combine data sets within the presentation itself so that the graphic they are working with becomes interactive. Users can, for example, add date, time, and GPS data to a graphic showing weather versus crop yield in the 20th Century, or information about volcanic eruptions overlaid with tsunami frequency in the Asia-Pacific region. Users simply drag and drop, and Tableau updates the graphic automatically, making the new information visible by hovering the mouse over the graphic or by clicking through to a new graphic, if that is what is desired.
“I’ve been in this space for over 15 years and I think this is one of those technologies that I think actually we are just at the beginning of this next wave,” said Ajenstat.
During a product demo it quickly became apparent that using data interactively to tell a story – as opposed to static charts and graphs – makes information for more useful and its presentation more compelling. As he spoke to a reporter, Ajenstat was able to ask and answer questions by pivoting and combining data to create new charts and graphs.
“If you look at the journey we’ve gone through in the BI world, we went from reporting, flat reports to visualizations, which is the world we are in now,” said Ajenstat. “The next phase is going to be storytelling. And that’s how people are going to be communicating; not just with the visuals but with rich, compelling, data-driven stories.”
Another important feature of the new release is its ability to run natively on Mac. This will please the many knowledge workers who no longer have to run a virtual machine to work with Tableau.
“There is authoring of visuals, dashboards, and stories and data prep versus the consumption of those,” said Cindi Howson, founder of BI research and analysis firm BI Scorecard. “For consumption, yes, Tableau does great on the iPad and browser. But for authoring, until now, it’s all been Windows based.
“I am very impressed with the Tableau product,” Howson added. “How far Stories is in front of other vendors is a vendor-by-vendor answer. A number of vendors are pursuing similar concepts but with slightly different approaches. So I think some of the improvements are big. Mac support will enthuse those customers. Stories is a theme for all the products this year.”
Now a freelance writer, in a former, not-too-distant life, Allen Bernard was the managing editor of CIOUpdate.com and numerous other technology websites. Since 2000, Allen has written, assigned and edited thousands of articles that focus on intersection of technology and business. As well as content marketing and PR, he now writes for Data Informed.com, Ziff Davis B2B, CIO.com, the Economist Intelligence Unit and other high-quality publications. Originally from the Boston area, Allen now calls Columbus, Ohio, home. He can be reached at 614-937-2316 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Please follow him on Twitter at @allen_bernard1, on Google+ or on Linked In.