I don’t like clichés, but idioms help us to understand common conceptions (and misconceptions). As with many sayings, the origins of the idiomatic expression “a picture is worth a thousand words” are obscure. However, its meaning as it relates to the BI space is clear; it “aptly characterizes one of the main goals of visualization, namely making it possible to absorb large amounts of data quickly”.
The power of visualization is undeniable, and Qlik has always been in the vanguard of using human visual acuity to help us get value from data. I’ve personally written and presented on this for years*, and Qlik continues to build amazing visualization capabilities.
There’s an issue with visualization though – in that it’s only part of the picture! Charts alone are arguably just better descriptors of data – great for information delivery – but are only partially valuable when it comes to analysis. To be of more analytic use, the visualizations must be fully interactive, paired with and powered by navigation capabilities. This combination enables the free exploration of the data pictured, and the data not pictured but in the dataset. (See Curt Monash’s blog ‘Visualization or navigation’ for an independent take on this.)
If visualization is not paired with navigation two things occur.
First, people have to create more and more visualizations to try and replicate an exploratory experience, i.e., to picture more perspectives on the data. This is not optimal. It takes time. Further, while linked visualizations are useful, trying to compare across many different visuals is difficult for people. It’s not uncommon for organizations using visualization tools that lack full interactivity to end up with many hundreds of charts because of this need. Chart bloat is a problem; reading a large amount of charts is as hard trying to assimilate the meaning of many words. Academic institutions often limit the length of doctoral theses to 100,000 words. Assuming the cliché’s broadly correct, if a picture = 1,000 words then just 100 charts = PhD thesis!
Second, and more seriously, if the focus is more about picturing data than navigating and exploring it, then there’s simply less business value to decision makers. Any initial picture describes the state of data, providing an answer to the ‘what’s happened/happening?’ questions posed by organizations. Answering the ‘why?’ questions that immediately follow demands rapid iterations through the data, re-picturing it if needed, or using alternative search and navigation experiences, so decisions can be made.
Ironically, I’ll rely on a visual from independent analyst Cindi Howson’s rigorous ‘2014 Successful BI Survey’ report as a proof point here:
Source: Cindi Howson, ‘2014 Successful BI Survey’, February 2014, pp40. Used with permission.
I’m not sure if this picture tells a thousand words, but it certainly speaks volumes (cliché!) about the relative business impact of combined visualization and navigation, given that the BI industry average for delivering ‘significant business impact’ is reported as just 28%.