Stephen Few versus David McCandless- we should leave playing doctor to the children

McCandless, mountains out of mole hills

Here is my response to Nathan's article, "Business intelligence vs. infotainment", on Flowing Data.  Nathan's article was in response to Stephen's earlier article on Perceptual Edge, "Teradata, David McCandless, and yet another detour for analytics".


We should leave “playing doctor” to the children

In considering this great debate, perhaps we should step back and consider another field, medicine.  For centuries, medicine was guided by wishes, fantasy and misguided ideas of what would heal people.  One of my favorite examples is "trephining" (drilling holes in your head) to release the evil spirits that have made the patient ill.  Of course, for a very small percent of patients, this proved helpful.  However, most ended up no better and typically much worse for their procedure.

I feel that McCandless work is "fun" and vibrant, but also misguided if new understanding and insight is the expected outcome.  There is actual science and research behind how people perceive and read visuals.  In my experience, Stephen has an extremely solid grasp on this body of work.  He has even added to this body of work with his own invaluable contributions to the field.  His contribution, bullet charts, are consistently a big hit with many of my Tableau training attendees. 

I think we should ask whether we are going to "play doctor" or actually try to heal the patients?  Do we seek to make art or is our primary goal to inform people about the state of the world around them?  Also, do we consider that people’s time and attention spans are valuable and limited?  Are we so vain to choose that aesthetics trumps the key information in our data when valuable questions are at hand? 

While I don’t think it is wrong to add a small amount of fun to any story, my first-hand experience with many executives in business and government is that there is a yearning for information that will make their decisions better informed.  Most decision-makers want to grow revenues, increase profits, save lives or make their job easier.  This all points to a need for data doctors who harness data to quickly and clearly inform.  We should leave playing doctor to the children.

Best regards,
Stephen McDaniel
Faculty- American Marketing Association
Principal Analyst, Freakalytics, LLC

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