Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Visuals for the few

There is a thoughtful article today by Stephen Few in the BI Network journal. In this he discusses the ways in which data can be presented to people, and gives a nice example of how a flashy graphic can be harder to interpret than a simple bar chart. There are some interesting follow-ups to this line of reasoning. Firstly, the vast majority of users of BI software have quite simple data display needs: they probably want to see a trend in data e.g. "are sales going up or down?" or answer a simple question like "what is the most profitable distributor?". Since the vast majority of BI tool users have no background in data analysis or statistics, it is at best pointless and possible self-defeating to provide them with much in the way of statistical tools or elaborate graphical display capabilities. If they don't understand statistical significance for example, then they may reach invalid conclusions by playing around with statistical tools.

This may explain why vendors who specialize in advanced data visualization never seem to really make it to any size. There are some very interesting technologies in this area e.g. Fractal Edge,(a technology that seems to me genuinely innovative) AVS, OpenDX and the tackily named The Brain. More established vendors would include SAS, who were one of the first vendors to really go in for sophisticated graphics and statistical tools, yet built up their considerable success mainly in other areas (e.g. they were about the only software that could make sense of an IBM mainframe dump, so became a standard in data centers; they have since diversified greatly). So, two decades after the graphical user interface became ubiquitous, why are there no billion dollar data visualization companies?

I think it is simply that there are not enough people out there whose jobs demand advanced data analysis tools. I have argued elsewhere that the vast majority of business users have no need whatever of ad hoc analytical BI tools. One can debate the exact proportion of business users who need something more than a report. I reckon perhaps 5% based on my experience on data warehouse projects, while I have seen an estimate of 15% from Forrester, so let's say 10% isn't far off. Then within this population, who want to at least see some analysis of data, what proportion are serious data analysts and what proportion would find a bar chart more than adequate? I don't have any hard data here, but let's go for 10% again as a guess. In such a case then only 1% of potential BI users actually need a sophisticated data visualization or statistical toolset. Indeed this figure may not be so far off, since in order to make serious use of such tools, some background in statistics is probably important, and relatively few people have this.

This would mean that, in a large organization of 10,000 people, there is actually only a market of 100 people for advanced data visualization or statistical tools (data mining tools being one example). Assuming that it is rare to be able to charge more than a few hundred dollars for a PC tool, then even at a thousand dollars a piece our mythical company would only be worth a maximum of USD 100k to a vendor, and that assumes that the vendor could track down every one of these advanced data users, and that every one of them buys the software, an unlikely situation.

If this reasoning stacks up, then while there will continue to be fascinating niche technologies serving aspects of data visualization, we are unlikely ever to see a true mass market for such tools. A picture may tell a thousand words, but there may not be many people in businesses needing to actually produce such pictures.

A good strategy for data visualization vendors would be to avoid trying to be mass market tools and find industry niches where clever graphics really do add a lot of value. For example a tool which improved a stock market trader's view of the market would presumably be worth a lot more than a thousand dollars. The same would be true of a geophysicist working for an oil company. A good example of a targeted strategy of this kind can be seen in Spotfire, who have carved out a strong niche primarily on the life sciences industry, and seem to be thriving on it.


Blogger Gervase Clifton-Bligh said...

A neat analysis that many would subscribe to and which may accurately describe the reasons why no visualization giants have emerged in the last 20 years. However at Fractal Edge we believe this reasoning happens to be true rather than has to be true.

Suppose a technique is invented that allows for example normal computer users to understand and spot problems in P&L, sales and other KPI reports more quickly and accurately than with a spreadsheet, then:

A. The technique could be called advanced - not because it is being used to assess particularly sophisticated data, but because it has simplified a common data set for a wide range of users.
B. The percentage of users who could derive hard business benefit from better quicker, deeper understanding of these reports would be much higher than 1%.

The most interesting consideration though is whether anyone actually needs it. Of course this will depend on many factors such as how much time is spent analyzing the report, how critical the analysis is to efficient running of the business, and how competitive the industry is. For this reason I think you can expect successful visualization innovators to focus initially on specific roles within highly competitive industries. Eventually, however, an advantageous visualization technique could attain a level of ubiquity that unequivocally requires the remainder of the market to adopt.

8:01 AM  
Blogger Andy Hayler said...

Thanks for your comment. I suppose the paradox is that PCs have been around a long time, and there has been some very clever visual software produced over the years, but still no broad adotion. I recall seeing a supeb demo of a 3D "fly through a data warehouse" from Silicon Graphics at a conference a few uears ago, and despite lots of "wow" factor, this simply never found broad appeal, and died away.

At present the broad "killer app" for visualization seems elusive. A similar argument could be made for geographic informatin systems (GIS) where despite some fine software from ESRI and others, and despite many seemingly obvious applications, GIS has never really moved far beyond the town planners and engineers into a broader mainstream.

Certainly human beings like to see things visually, so if a widely-appealing application of it could be developed then it would widen the market. Personally, I really like the Fractal Edge technology, and I wish you luck in finding that killer app.

8:25 AM  
Blogger Gervase Clifton-Bligh said...

3D interfaces don't work, because of the essentially 2D nature of a mouse and screen....

Glad to hear on the grapevine Kalido is going well!

5:39 AM  
Blogger Dr I Malinovsky said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

5:08 PM  
Blogger Dr I Malinovsky said...


We at ScienceGL believe that 3D graphics never did the real show in neither business nor scientific application, just because so far it was not kind of a graphics that is truly advantageous over 2D plots.
I agree with
Gervase Clifton-Bligh that most of the graphics on market is just dead FLAT
>3D interfaces don't work, because >of the essentially 2D nature of a
>mouse and screen....
----End Quote---

The situation changes drastically if you have it in advanced implementation:
1. True virtual reality interactive 3D screen with mouse driven rotation, zoom, “walk around”. This type of graphics does not look flat any longer, because it is as live as real object in your hands.

2. Interactive mouse driven 3D tools touchable and movable in all directions, XYZ coordinate readable under mouse and tools. This kind of mouse does not feel flat any longer.

It is true that 3D graphics exists for a long time, but the suitable yet affordable hardware, that fits into advanced graphics demand, has arrived just a couple of years ago.

We trust that we do develop something that makes the difference.
Just as Games went 3D, geo goes 3D with Google now, many other things will follow. Example might be

Dr I Malinovsky
CTO, ScienceGL Inc

5:46 PM  

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