What can parkrun teach us about standards and innovation?

One of the topics that pop up quite regularly in the data viz and in particular the tableau world is to what degree do you control the look and feel of the outputs – do you put standards in place and if you do what kind of controls do you have?

So parkrun…..

For those that do not know what parkrun is – it is a free 5k timed run that happens every Saturday morning at parks up and down the UK and more increasingly beyond.  One of the things that makes it so popular is that you can go to any parkrun and they all operate more or less the same.  There are very few rules but the rules that are there are all about making it work.


The rules (borrowed from Banbury parkrun):

Don’t forget your barcode

The barcode is part of the magic that makes parkrun work – it links you with the position with the time – it cuts out the need to take down peoples names and makes processing results simple.

Only cross the finish line once

Simply you cross twice it messes up the results and is a headache to sort out

Do not funnel duck & Always stay in line in the funnel

Once you have crossed the line you are in the system – do not change order and do not leave the tunnel without taking a token and then handing that it.

Always take a token & Don’t take the tokens with you

Another part of the magic – the total is your position which is matched with the time which is matched with your barcode to you – don’t take them with you as they are needed the next week.

All under 11’s run with an adult

For insurance purposes – simple

1 dog per adult on a short lead

Not to trip people up – simple

What you will notice is that there are only a few simple rules that have to be adhered to and each one has a very good whys to them – once explained they make sense and ultimately the pain of them not being adhered to is very evident to the people who should be following the rules.  There are no extraneous rules about running in running kit, doing a proper warm up or even that you need to talk to anyone – it is just enough to make it work.

This is key as it not only makes it easy to enter for the first time but it also makes it easy to go to any other parkrun and participate without fear of them doing things differently.

This brings me onto the thing that led me to write this blog – what I have seen on my various travels visiting different parkruns is that they indeed do things differently but it is innovation around these core set of rules whether that be having pacer events, having ice pops at the finish in hot weather, having running buddies for first timers and the less confident and so on and so on.  I believe that the simple core set of enabling rules has fostered this culture for innovation – people feel empowered to put things in place as they are not told how to do everything.



What has this got to do with design standards?

My thoughts are that you do need some standards/guidelines in place and they should be that and not good practice as people need to know what is needed to make things work.  The level of this will be dependent on your businesses culture (i.e. very brand driven etc).  You also need to enforce those standards with almost military precision – if you have said things will not work if that is not in place you need to stick to your guns. 

Once you have this in place and working people should recognise the envelope in which they are working and innovation and creativity should flow.  You can then capture this by creating a community of practice (Parkrun links up through their governance structure and shares ideas and associated challenges)  but also recognise that one size does not fit all and what works in one area may not in another but it will all still work.

Knowing what good looks like

I was talking through the challenges of getting teams to not only be technically proficient with data viz tools but also with good design and I was greeted with the following statement:

It is easier for you Dave because you know what good looks like…

So do I have some magical natural ability – of course not but I was struggling to articulate how I had built up the knowledge to be able to instinctively know when something was more likely to work or not.

Around the same time I was reading Blink by Malcolm Gladwell.  In this book Gladwell talks about the fact that snap judgments are not a toss of a coin dependent on luck but more the culmination of our experiences knitted together in a way we cannot always explain.

So with that in mind I thought I would try to unpick this a little based on my experience – what elements of my learning do I think has helped build up that gut feel and hopefully what would be useful to others.

Spend time with people discussing the areas you are developing products for

This is something which given the hectic pace of work is often over looked.  Being present whilst the experts in the area go through their planning and general management of the area can often give you very good insight into what the data and analysis should influence.  The presence at meetings etc always does have to have a purpose (as should the meetings itself) but that purpose could be to get familiar with an area.

I have found this to be quite effective – it is not about making copious notes but more about just actively listening and subconsciously joining up the dots so that when analysis is required you are already one step ahead.  It has also helped with cutting down on the barrage of questions because you can articulate what they need in terms they resonate with.

Spend time with people using the products

This one is more common but I don’t mean just the usual development interaction of specification and delivery.  Go to where they are working, take in their environment, if they start talking about something not directly related let the conversation flow.  This is building rapport but it is also also about you building a picture of where their comfort is and if what they have asked for is actually what they need.

The challenge I have found here is actually narrowing down the main target audience – getting to the people who will be using the analysis not just the person who thinks it is required (in my experience not always the same person).

So those two are more around the softer side of design – the making sure it is fit for purpose.

Surround yourself with good examples

So I could recommend lots of books here (Big book of dashboards is a great one) but I don’t know about you but I struggle with family, work and hobbies to sit down and properly focus on a book.  When I do it tends to be fiction to give me the escapism I need.  So how do you get the examples?

Twitter, feedly, RSS feeds etc – basically any platform which will squirt the latest content over to you so you can whilst sitting on a bus, lazing in the bath or sitting on the loo digest that great content.  Obviously a lot of the success of this depends on who you push into that stream but I have found you can quite quickly get a feel for what you class as good examples and what is not.

With that in mind here are a few blogs which I like and I feel fits with what I would count as good effective design.

Data viz done right – Andy Kriebel’s gallery of effective visualisation

Everyday dashboards – Chris Love’s store of great examples of real dashboards that people have submitted.

VizCandy – Beautiful design – draws you in and is also very effective

So in conclusion:

Trust your gut it is more intelligent than you think

Keep it well fed with the right things and then hopefully good design will be easy for you.



Photo by Anna Sullivan on Unsplash

The importance of WHY to get true value from learning

I was very fortunate recently to get a place on a four day data visualisation training course with Stephen Few,  The training was hosted in London which meant long days commuting but it is not often you get to learn from someone so respected in their field.

Now I have been in this field for a while now and I like to think I know a bit so I was not too sure how much new stuff I was going to get from the course,  I have used his books in the past as well as those by Edward Tufte so I have done my research.

The course was split into chunks based on three of his books:

Day 1 &2 – Show me the numbers

Day 3 – Information dashboard design

Day 4 – Now you see it

We were advised not to be too concerned about taking notes as the slides and notes would be sent after the course and he wanted us to take in what he was saying and question as we went along.

We merrily went through the key areas reviewing examples as we went with challenges back and forth between the trainers and the trainees.  This took up most of our time on the course – it didn’t feel like it was the just the content from the books regurgitated but rather us just critiquing examples and having discussions (sometimes heated) whilst we were brought round to his way of thinking.

Now it may not surprise you to know but:

  • Pie charts are not a good way of displaying data – 3D ones are even worse
  • If it is a trend over time then its a line chart
  • For most other scenarios its a good old bar chart

Now this I already knew so what did I get from the course outside this?

The reasons why!

What we were doing throughout most of the course was getting from Stephen the reasons why the points he was making were true.  This was not delivered in a bullet point list but by us reviewing examples and discovering for ourselves the true reasons for why one thing is more effective than the other.  It was a collection of small light bulb moments that clarified the existing thinking.

Stephen kept using the phrase

“I want you to be comfortable with it”

which makes perfect sense because once you are comfortable with it and understand naturally the why you can easily adapt your understanding to the situation.

So what next?

Following on from the training I will be looking to embed this more in our organisation.

We already have a collective review of products before they are released which involves discussion around the merits of the work and of what it is trying to achieve and I will look to bring a bit more of the why into things.

Stephen talked about when you do that kind of review having two dashboards being reviewed at the same time.  They do not need to be covering the same topic but having a comparison enables their strengths and weaknesses to be exposed far clearer.

Lastly I will take a little time each meeting to talk about the WHY rather than just:

Dave doesn’t like pie charts

I hope that was useful


The value of a different perspective

In my previous post I focused on how critique was key and how it helped me on my path to present at the London Tableau conference.  In this post I would like to talk about how gaining a different perspective is useful and how it put into perspective the challenges we face.

Last year we as a team gained an award for our Tableau implementation.  It was just an internal award but it was kind of a big deal to us.  The award was for Innovation and change.


I personally struggled to enjoy the success.  It was recognition from people I respect and value, it was a great evening and a great award but I was troubled.To me it didn’t feel like a success – there were many things that we would have done differently with the implementation, there were still many things that we would like to do.

Not as many people were using the tool as we would have liked, it was difficult to find the content and when you got to the content it was sometimes overly complex.

It may appear harsh but at the time I felt like we had under performed…

The conference had made me feel like we were heading in the right direction but also showed me what else could be done.  Following on from the conference I started to talk more to people in the community and show more of what we had achieved.

As I talked more with people in a more intimate environment the more I came to be proud of what we had done.  It is not because we had it cracked all but because we had solved some problems that people were struggling with.  Whether it was the agile development or the way we used portals to deliver content there were things that were genuinely impressive and more importantly useful to people we talked to.

It is not about getting a big ego or showing off as we still have a lot to do but engagement has given me a more positive reflective view rather than just focusing on the what we didn’t do well.

So go – engage, set up a web meeting, be proud of what you have achieved and be thirsty to find the solutions to your challenges..

The importance of critique and critical friends

There has been a lot of discussion around the Make Over Monday project over the last couple of weeks about best practice and to what extent there should be critical feedback.  I thought I would write a few bits down about critique and how it has been key to my progress in the last year.

Earlier in the year I was lucky enough to be chosen to talk at the London Tableau conference.  It was a big thing for me as I have not presented at events of this size.

I rolled up my sleeves and put together a draft presentation in time for the Midlands Tableau User Group as Capital 1 in Nottingham.  I used Prezi and went for a Tableau Dark theme…..

I felt it went okay  – it definitely needed work but there was a structure there but was it style over substance?  I then discussed it with Zen Rob – 30 minutes of quite painful feedback later I realised I had a lot of work to do.

“That was okay but London is a different ball game”

I won’t go into great detail of the feedback (that is probably another whole blog!) but the fact that Zen Rob didn’t just say yep it was okay and wish me a safe trip home was critical for me to further develop my presentation.

The feedback was difficult to take but like any true coach it was delivered with reasoning which moved me from panic to thinking about how I could improve things.  The drive home gave me time to think and I had a new plan when I arrived home.

With the presentation redrafted I set off down to London to do another run through with the Data School.  I knew this would be a challenge as I knew Zen Andy had asked how tough to be with me..

I ran through the presentation which elicited a few chuckles and then we moved on to the feedback…

“Point of slide?”

Lets just say Zen Andy does not mince his words.  It was brutal but as with Zen Rob the reasoning was there with each dashing blow.  Again I will not go into detail but there was one key message from it all – you have a great story to tell just focus on that.

Following on from this I sat outside Euston Station and rewrote the presentation which i then delivered at the conference (My presentation video) – I still need to work on the delivery but I hope you will agree that there was a good story there with a structure.

Following on from the data school Zen Andy sent me a message saying he hoped he wasn’t too hard on me – my reply was that it was exactly what I needed and that I could not have pulled it together without that feedback.

I then had another “intervention” whilst rushing through trying to catch up with Make Over Monday.  I was churning visualisations out when I got a message from Zen Chris:

– mind some critique?

My heart sunk – what then occurred over the next 30 minutes was a discussion via twitter which finished with me refocused on what I wanted to get out of my Make Over Monday participation and a clear idea of how to do it (it is not to chase the 100% or create a Sankey 😉 ).

So what am I trying to say with all this rambling….

  • Seek out and engage with people that you know will challenge you rather than just agree with your view point
  • Be open to critique and actively encourage it
  • When delivering critique the reasoning behind it is key as this will help people shift their view point (if they agree with it) and work out how they can move on

It has been a great year and that is massively down to the interventions of people who are not afraid to challenge and take critique seriously.

Please do feel free to comment – I need your critique!