Sunday, November 19, 2006

Criticising Edward Tufte

I'm a huge fan of Edward Tufte, and so are many people who are interested in the graphical presentation of information. He's got a lot of good things to say that BI people should listen to, and he says it in an engaging way. Pictured, right, is Minard's diagram of Napoleon's march on Moscow, used by Tufte as an exemplar of good graphical information presentation.

As with any guru, though, his adherents sometimes get bogged down with the minutae of what he says, rather than the underlying principles he tries to communicate. There's an interesting couple of posts over at Emergent Chaos in response to a criticism of the Minard diagram as a communication tool, and Juice Analytic's follow-up. The original criticism was made by Seth Godin in the following video:


Anonymous said...

What do you guys think about Stephen Few? He is more BI focused. I recently read one of his books "Show me the numbers" a bit boring at the beginning but nevertheless useful.

Rob Meredith said...

I personally haven't come across much of Stephen's work. POD might have more of an opinion though. The impression I get from his blog is that he makes some good points and is pretty tenacious about advocating them. My only criticism is that he's too focussed on only one particular kind of BI (ie. quantitative analytics). In this regard, he's subject to the same criticism he makes of some vendors: too narrow a focus. My own view of BI is that it needs to go beyond quantitative analytics and reporting to the creation of a supportive decision environment, including qualitative, soft factors. This is the same problem that Operations Resarch/Decision Analysis has - too much of a quantitative, mathematical focus, while ignoring the humanist, cognitive aspects of decision-making in the real world.

Stephen Few said...


I ran across your comments about my work and wanted to respond. As you mentioned, I frequently criticize BI software vendors, but not for being too narrow in focus. By narrow focus, based on the example that you point to of my own exclusive focus on quantitative information, I understand you to mean focus on a subset of the field as a whole. I have no problem with vendors focusing on specific aspects of the larger scope of BI. What I object to is the fact that they often provide ineffective tools for tackling the aspects of BI that they do address. They all address quantitative data analysis and presentation, but only a few do so in ways that are effective.

I completely agree that the scope of BI extends beyond quantitative data and have an interest in these other areas as well, but have chosen to specialize in quantitative data, at least for now. Until BI gets better at making sense of and communicating quantitative data, I will probably continue to focus on this area.

Qualitative, "soft factors" must definitely be addressed as part of the decision-making process. This is often missing, which is a critical problem in business. I don't agree, however, that "humanist, cognitive aspects of decision-making in the real world" are unrelated to quantitative analysis. Even when we interpret the numbers, humanist and cognitive aspects of decision making should be applied. I believe that quantitative and qualitative analysis differ in the questions one asks and the data one examines, not in anything having to do with one's philosophical or cognitive approach. The best quantitative analysts rely as heavily on right-brain oriented thinking (big picture, relationships, patterns, synthesis, etc.) as on left-brain oriented thinking (details, analysis, etc.).

Take care,

Stephen Few

Rob Meredith said...

Hi Stephen,

Thanks for leaving a comment and clarifying your position. I generally agree with the points you make, and should point out that I also include quantitative analysis as one part of a humanist, cognitive approach to decision-making. My personal view is that such an approach is characterised by a balance between quantitative and qualitative analyses, and a recognition of the limitations of employing any one particular analytic practice or technique (they all have advantages and disadvantages). In other words, analytics alone (as usually defined by business analysts) is no panacea to the needs of decision-makers, anymore than standardised reporting is.



Stephen Few said...


Thanks for responding. We appear to have similar perspectives regarding the business decision-making process and what it ought to entail. Unfortunately, too many business decisions fail to involve good information, intelligent consideration of the information, and values beyond a short-sighted pursuit of profits.

Take care,


Peter O'Donnell said...

Just came across a blog devoted to data presentation that will be of interest to people who have followed this conversation.

The blog is located at:

and is run by Andrew Vande Moere who is a lecturer at the University of Sydney. Looks like he runs some great courses.