Organizations continue to push data-driven decisions for greater amounts of their activities. As a result, the demand to understand meaning within the mountains of collected data is rapidly growing. The bottleneck in understanding all this data is the scarcity of individuals (read: data scientists, statisticians, etc…) who can use this data to glean meaningful insight. This has historically been a challenge for many organizations, but data visualization tools can help us bridge this gap.
Our brains, while inherently inferior to computers in the realm of computation, are comparatively phenomenal at pattern recognition. Additionally, they are hard-wired to respond to visual inputs. While we may not be able to look at a string of numbers and intuitively know the standard deviation of a sample, we are very good at picking up patterns from visual displays such as a scatter plot.
But let’s take this one step further. How does the human brain make complex decisions? How are business leaders able to combine statistical calculations, past experiences, and intuition to make impactful decisions such as creating new products, targeting certain markets, or pivoting business strategy? More importantly (for this blog at least), how can data visualization help us get to these outcomes, and what vendors are getting us there?
I’d like to introduce what we here at Blue Hill are calling “The Cognition MatrixTM”.
At the most basic level, binary processing is simple calculation. For the business user, this might help us answer questions such as what was revenue this quarter? At a more complex level, binary processing leads us into the realm of statistical modeling or forecasting. Binary processing is where machines excel, and we rely heavily on their processing power to compliment our own decision-making processes.
But meaningful insights come from our ability to understand inputs within the context of prior experiences – in other words, from pattern recognition. On a basic level, pattern recognition manifests itself in instinct. Consider an example from the physical world: catching a fly ball. We could certainly run calculations based on velocity and flight path to find the correct place to stand, but instead we need only the visual cue of the ball in the air and our past experiences to instinctually know where to go.
Because of our brain’s disposition to visual cues, bridging the gap between binary processing and pattern recognition can often be achieved through some form of visualization. Simple charts and graphs help us see movements such as declining revenue performance, and complex visualizations can help us find trends that our brains are not otherwise able to identify from strings of data.
At the highest levels of decision-making, we must make challenging leaps of understanding in the face of nuance and uncertainty. We often rely on data and analysis in tandem with our intuition to guide our process. Making analysis more digestible to the human mind through data visualization is an important element in complementing our decision-making.
So which vendors are helping us get to cognition? They form an interesting mix, ranging from legacy players to younger visualization-first companies that provide compelling solutions. For the business user, the greatest value is achieved through self-service and analyst-centric solutions for data visualization.
Qlik, Tableau, and Yellowfin are, relatively speaking, the new kids on the block – although they can be credited with validating the self-service visualization movement. Each has been lauded for their innovations in self-service data-discovery and stunning visualizations, and they all feature their own version of a storyboarding application that emphasizes individual analysts’s ability to communicate findings.
MicroStrategy and Information Builders are among the largest and most established of the independent business intelligence vendors. While they originally cut their teeth on dashboarding and reporting, each has come to market with strong self-service visualization tools. Microstrategy’s Analytics Desktop and Information Builders’ InfoDiscovery are analyst centric tools that excel at finding insights within data.
Of the mega-vendors, SAP and IBM stand out for a number of reasons. Both SAP Lumira and IBM Watson Analytics are predicated on helping analysts tell stories with their data, and each company has invested heavily in creating impressive user interfaces. Lumira and Watson Analytics both offer free versions available from their respective company websites. This is an important signal indicating a departure from traditional strategies and how serious they are to making these products a success.
As visualization continues to be at the forefront of the data analysis discussion, expect to see a continuing convergence of players innovating in the space. Basic data visualization and self-service capabilities will no longer be the competitive differentiators they once were and vendors will continue to push the envelope of packaging analysis into decision driving stories.
If you’d like to dig deeper into our thoughts on bio-inspired and cognitive computing, then please read my post on business intelligence, data visualization, and the brain.
Later this month we will be releasing a more extensive report diving deeper into this issue. In addition to further examining how data visualization empowers business decision making, we will be highlighting more vendors and going into greater detail on each.