Thursday, November 23, 2006

Visualization and Coding

While focusing more and more on how to build out a Data Visualization practice, I realized that this practice does not border only on creating art objects (see my last week’s posting) but it transgresses into the most basic function of software development: Coding. Let me try to expand on this basic idea of incorporating another related discipline into our data world. Wikipedia expresses a similar thought when it talks about Coding: “There is an on going debate on the extent to which the writing of programs is an art or an engineering discipline.” I believe the same question can be asked to anyone who is serious about Data Visualization. That’s why the inclusion of Coding and Design into this practice becomes simultaneously more relevant and more challenging.

Coding is the mathematical writing of business rules and machine orders that enables a computer to repeat the same task endlessly. How do visualizing and coding come together? First, there is the data challenge or question that triggers the need of insightful visualization. Second, someone has the idea of how to visually represent the potential answer to the data challenge. Now there comes the third step, when Coding is entering the game. We need to mash available or design new applications into creating the right visual outcome. This does not happen at every visualization challenge but whenever we are trying to create a first, a real innovation. Only the collaboration of initial visual ideas, and the disciplined writing of the right code creates the artful result and object. And it’s only possible in today’s world of Open Source Software, decreasing costs for hard and software, and the rapid speed of prototyping.

Therefore, the Data Visualization practice resides between the more art centric discipline of design and the more engineering focused discipline coding. At its best it combines both life forms and generates a result of clarity, repeatability, and beauty while pointing to a relevant insight changing of how we would attack a particular marketing problem. I purposefully don’t include any reference to our core analytical and statistical work, I will do it another time.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Data Visualization practice

After writing recently quite a bit about the importance of Data Visualization (and even the beauty of data) a lot of marketers have started to ask me: How can we build such a practice without investing a huge amount of dollars?

I rarely have a straightforward answer but my experience taught three things. First, one has to bring together three different functional expertise areas in building out such a practice:

  • Data Strategist. This is someone who doesn’t need to be a statistician but someone with strong marketing strategy capabilities and high data affinity. This person is the bridge between the analytical hard core geek and the rest of the world
  • Techie. Someone needs to own the build out and implementation of the necessary underlying data infrastructure and applications. This techie needs constant communication with the data strategist to ensure that he is not developing anything off strategy. It’s all about rapid development with instant feedback loops. No development should take more than a couple of days before immediate review by the rest of the team.
  • Data Designer. Here we need someone with strong creative background who is able to transform data insights into innovative visuals with meaning. This person is the most difficult to find and challenging to train. There are not too many role models out there, it’s a totally new discipline that we have to define over the next years.

Only the joining of all three experts will enable the right end product. There is no real lead within this triumvirate; it is rather as Tim O’Reilly describes the phenomena of “Harnessing of the Collective Intelligence” within this team and hopefully beyond.

Secondly, I have learned that one productive constraint is the low amount of available dollars for hard and software. This visualization practice should not have a significant capital expenditure budget but should get used to work within very tough financial constraints. I rather recommend investing money in the right talent than in fancy tools and hardware solutions. Financial limitation should be the breeding ground for innovation.

Third, the first projects of such a data visualization practice should be client driven. Ask yourself which client of yours (internal or external) has an urgent challenge or question that you would like to answer with data driven insights. Then you challenge the whole team of coming up with a solution. It’s important to realize that the final visual result is not the result of one brief individual genius stroke but the end product of a painfully labor intensive process with dozens of versions and iterations within this team. Think endless prototyping, think team tension to create a powerful end product.

These three learning can enable any marketing team to slowly build out the right visualization practice without investing millions of dollars. It has not been done too often but it will be required to be a best in class marketer. Enjoy building it.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Beauty of Data

In quite a few of my postings over the last months I have talked about the importance of developing a practice of “Data Visualization” within marketing organizations, most likely within the research or analytical division. Why? Because analytics will always remain in the dark and easily forgotten corner of marketing discussions, if it doesn’t get better on visualizing its findings and communicating an interesting story to everyone within a marketing organizations, not just to the Data Geeks.

Just last week I stumbled on Ben Fry’s amazing visualizations of several data challenges They demonstrate that visualizations are not just necessary to enable simpler and more focused data interpretation but that they can create beautiful objects, too. Ben Fry’s visual results transform data projects into fascinating art objects.

The fusion of data analytics with design centric minded individuals will be a main driver to build one of the most powerful new marketing disciplines for the next 20-30 years: Data Democratization. As mentioned in earlier postings, the Democratization of Data will enable more and more individuals to enjoy and benefit from the data analytical work of marketing analysts. It will focus first on marketers but it will expand into any business function of successful companies. Today the Democratization of Data is at its early infancy but its development and expansion might parallel the democratization of design over the last 50 years.

One can probably trace the democratization of design into some fundament shifts that occurred over the last 50 years. These shifts will have its parallel in the Data Democratization discipline. Let me try to stress three of the many fundamentals that democratized design:
  • Decreasing costs - High quality design is getting more and more affordable for everyone, it is not just for exclusive elite members anymore
  • Marriage of Function and Beauty - The long debated tension of Functionality and Beauty within the design discipline is now universally perceived as a positive creative force not an ideological decision
  • Accessibility - Nowadays design expands into more and more elements of our daily life sphere, and doesn’t remain in the circle of just a few highly “designed” items that might end up in the museum

If the energy, the level of innovation and the far reaching consequences of design (please check out the current exhibition “Massive Change” by Bruce Nau in Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art, will be any indicator for the changes that Data Democratization will bring, then it will be a fun 20-30 years of contributing and observing this new marketing discipline, Data Democratization. And the uncovered beauty of data will be in the center of it.

Friday, November 03, 2006

One Brand for everyone?

Over the last weeks I had several discussions with marketers from Fortune 50 companies - one challenge seems to occupy the minds of these leading marketers more and more: How can a brand have one positioning, one idea, one feeling, one thought when today’s consumer world is more and more dominated by stronger targeted and segmented marketing programs and when this world is driven by consumers who own the brand, and not vice versa? I didn’t have immediately an answer or solution because this is on the challenges that will keep us marketers sleepless for at least the next decade. But it kept me thinking.

So, what’s going on? I think we experience two diverging trends that need some reconciliation. One trend is the continuing power of simple brand ideas that stand out in the midst of an over-stimulated and ADD struck consumer. Only simple brand ideas that clearly stand for something unique (e.g., Apple for cool and functional design, BMW for engineer and performance driven auto experience) are getting any attention. On the other hand, marketers target more and more a wide array of segments with various communication concepts and messages that are barely linked by one brand idea. Additionally, marketers accept (though grudgingly) that the consumer takes over control of the brand and the brand experience, leaving less room for centrally defined, although potentially clear brand ideas and concepts.

What do we have to do? I have two suggestions; maybe they are more predictions than straightforward recommendations:
  • The segment specific differentiation of marketing strategies and tactics will only increase, thereby putting more pressure and confusion of what one particular brand can stand for. Result? The potential for more brand dilution is growing.
  • The power of simplicity becomes even stronger - Simple defined brands based on a key consumer insight or need will win. Any slight confusion in brand positioning and insight based need definition will deteriorate the value of any brand and ultimately destroy any brand

Only brands that can live and thrive in this tension field of segment differentiation and brand clarity will be powerful enough to generate long-term loyalty. Successful brands will use the power of a simple position idea that enables different consumers from a wide spectrum of emotional, geo-demographic and attitudinal worlds to create their own brand experience. But this brand experience will contain the one kernel of brand truth that pertains to everyone. It will definitely be harder and harder to create brands that can live in this tension. That’s why the tenure and survival of brands will get shorter and tougher. But the ones that are able to thrive in this tension will be as powerful as never before.