Wednesday, January 22, 2014

New To Data Blogging: 3 Lessons 3 Months In

When +Ben Jones announced Data Blogging Month, I thought about if I should write anything on the subject or not.  I've only started blogging about 3 months ago, so I'm still very new to this space.  Plus, after learning more about the Tableau Public community, I'm continually humbled by what I see the community put out and feel like I always have things I can be learning.

But this may also be an opportunity to turn an apparent weakness into a strength: I have the perspective of someone new to the game who is trying to establish a voice and presence while encountering some early bumps in the road.  I've probably learned more in the past 3 months than I had in my previous 3 years of using Tableau (kicked off with a schooling by Nelson Davis), and maybe these are the same things that others are going through in their early experience of getting into +Tableau Software Blogging.


1. The Story Being Told Is Paramount

This may seem like the most fundamental concept of data visualization, but is also the very thing that is easiest to lose sight of.  In the midst of getting your worksheet perfect and leveraging Tableau's capabilities (not to mention thinking about getting views/retweets/reposts), it becomes very easy to resort to "this will look cool" or "look at how smart I am" types of worksheets that ultimately end up confusing the user and turning people away from the viz...  

...and the tool won't get in your way from doing it.  Tableau is so developer friendly, there is no disincentive to complicate.  I can't count the number of times I've been building and thought along the lines of "It'll look better when I color the line with this metric, or size it with another metrics, or throw in a table calc".  Only later, when showing it to someone and they can't understand what in the hell is going on, does this come back to bite you.

The story you are telling grounds you.  Even when you are absolutely lost, are suffering writers block, or aren't feeling creative, the story you are telling is what re-engages and brings you back to focus.  An engaging story, even if it doesn't have as many bells and whistles, is will keep users looking and sharing.  Don't be a Sheldon and push people away with how smart you think you are.

2. Great Design Takes Time (And Lots Of Iteration)

A goal in the next month is to film how long it takes me to make a dashboard that I publish on Tableau Public.  The idea being that even with the ability to create insight in 3 minutes, I would guess that I spend about 15-30 HOURS of development, and countless more hours even thinking about it, before I get to a Viz that I post up.  The dashboards that win Viz of the Day probably go through the later process more so than the former process.

I may be on the slower end (it's not really something I've polled other developers about), but all of that time is spent in a number of different ways
  • I probably create 8-12 worksheets to investigate my data before getting to the 3-4 worksheets in my final viz
  • I'll wish I had more data to answer a question, so then I need to research and find that additional data and bring it into my workbook
  • I'll play with the layout of my dashboard in numerous different combinations
  • I add too much content and now I need to pear it down
  • If there's text, I'm constantly rewording to hit the message while taking up as little space as I can 
  • I'll mess with different color pallets to see if there are better color combinations (FYI: Cyclic is the bomb!)
  • I share drafts with peers and iterate based on their notes 
It may be inefficient, but I reassure myself with a quote from the #TCC13 keynote: "The great discoverers are jazz artists— they combine logic with intuition." Discoverers feel, they chase, they shift perspectives and they relate different ideas."  My overall time may be longer than others, but I would put money that the great final products didn't come together exactly as you see them.  Rather, they were the result of exploration, revision, and polish.

3. Your Blog Is About You, Not Your Audience

The beautiful thing about the internet is the ability to instantly share your thoughts and receive feedback with a global audience in near real time.  I can publish a post, tweet it, and start hearing from others in less than 10 minutes.  That tight feedback loop can dig into our own image of ourself.  Early on, I fell into the trap of being crushed when I didn't instantly have thousands of retweets or get a million comments.  Even after winning Viz of the Day with my Mike Ditka Viz, life moved on and the next day there was a new Viz of the Day (won by my very talented colleague +Peter Gilks none the less).

Now, I'm not saying that being recognized isn't a big deal.  Winning Viz of the Day was a huge honor; something I'm still very proud of and grateful for.  I'll never forget jumping up and down when someone who I didn't know (ended up being +Steph Stradley) retweeted one of my first posts.  But getting lost in the idea that "everything I do has to win/be retweeted/get views" became more important than "design something that efficiently tells a story and relays my passion for a topic".

Refocusing my efforts back to the process of telling stories that I'm passionate about, and less about the results of those efforts has made the experience enjoyable again.  I still reach out for feedback from my talented colleagues at +Slalom Consulting and I look at what the +Tableau Software community, especially the Tableau Zen Masters, are producing (my current favorite being +Kelly Martin and her VizCandy blog) to continue to refine my skills.  But at the end of the day, my blog is mine; something I do to share my interests in a way that maximizes/sharpens not only my Tableau skills, but also my design skills.

Conclusion

Maybe I'm wrong.  Maybe I'm the only guy who gets lost in rabbit holes of features instead of story.  Maybe I'm the only one who takes forever to get my viz's together.  Maybe I'm the only self deprecating narcissist on the internet.  Either way, these all were lessons that I had to learn (and continue to relearn) to be confident and okay with putting myself and my passions out for the world to look at (or ignore).  I've improved my Tableau skills beyond where they were before I started and I'm looking forward to what the Tableau Public community (myself included) can produce in the time to come.  Thank you.