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!