Visualization tools and their use
In the past, I have discussed visualization tools and a few companies that make them. They are used by a wide variety of professionals such as the Business Intelligence community, Scientific Data explorers, Financial data analysts and many more users.
I feel though that more often than not such tools are an afterthought in a company’s think tank and require a significant amount of training, learning and overcoming a mental block by the senior management of a company. Companies such as Tableau Software, Spotfire, and many others must have excellent sales teams which, on identifying companies that may be able to benefit from their really stellar software, have to then pitch it to them. Even if the software blows the company management away, the reluctance on their part in adopting it surely must be a problem. Additionally, I am sure that even if the top management think its a great idea, the real users (lower level management/marketing/sales professionals) might not have the time and willingness to invest into using the software.
I know that the people behind these visualization companies are brilliant researchers who are not only innovating in the field of visualization but also taking the extra effort to improve on proven visualization techniques in order to make them easy to use.
I feel very strongly about this matter and wonder if a few things can be done to avoid this situation in the future. Clearly, just as training radiologists and other medical software users to use 3D volume rendering software is an uphill task, training business analysts to use visualization tools must be a difficult task.
1 – Provide an educational version of the software that can be available and used only through academic institutions. They could be fully featured or have only some evaluation features but let your software be one of the first tools that students use when analyzing their data. That will ensure that at least a few of them will be trained in using the tool when they go on to join a company and root for your visualization software at the company. If you think about it, companies like Microsoft allow free downloads of their express edition of Visual Studio for students which ensures a familiarity with the software that developers then take to companies when they join there. In my experience, students are far more ready to learn new software and technologies as compared to senior management in a company. They also have more time on their hands and can devote more time to learn the spiffy new features in your visualization software.
2 – Developing a course or two for data analysis in conjunction with a professor at a university – Merely providing educational versions of the software is of limited value. An interesting data analysis course that teaches use of your software or two/three other similar software tools along with basics of data analysis and an overview of visualization techniques might be another interesting way to approach the problem.
3 – Provide easy to use learning material – Take the time and make sure to have tutorials and multitudes of examples on your website that will allow users to use them and improve over time. Having a free PDF book or a step-by-step tutorial can vastly benefit the user and take some load off of your hands for training purposes. Tableau software does an amazing job in the training realm as can be seen by the examples at http://www.tableausoftware.com/learning/examples. You can even download a ‘workbook’ for each example and play around with it in your copy of the software.
4 – Provide free training in the form of Webcasts – Recently, nvidia had a few webcasts focused on CUDA and its applicability for general purpose computing on the GPU. The webcast consisted of a few nvidia developers giving a presentation and answering some questions at the end. The webcast was free and was a great way to indoctrinate a few more researchers to use CUDA for which they would have to buy nvidia graphics cards. I thought it was a great idea which could be taken even further when applied to visualization software. If your users already have a running software, then publishing sample datasets and walking them through it can be even more compelling and interactive than reading an online tutorial or a book chapter.
5 – Providing training at a conference or a workshop might be another way to get users to download your evaluation version and play with some data. Google has been doing similar ‘training’ at conferences like SIGGRAPH and IEEE Visualization for the last couple of years now. This helps you get new users as well as allow for professionals attending the conference to learn something they might convey to their company when they go back to work, which could translate into acceptance and added sales for the company.
If you have any other suggestions, please feel free to let me know. Sorry there are no pretty visualizations in this post :)