Thinking about BI: Infographics is the next phase…

Infographics by The Guardian
Infographics by The Guardian (Photo credit: tripu)

I have been thinking about BI… prompted by a friend, Frank Bien, who is the CTO of Looker (you are welcome, Frank, for the plug…) but this post is about a  trend in BI that is worth exploring… and only maybe about Looker or any other tool.

BI was originally about reporting… in its very first iterations users coded SQL directly, or used a 4GL scripting language, and the BI tool was there for formatting the output. Then more focus was put on query-building to make it easier for developers to effectively get the required data.

There was lots of talk at this point about knowledge-workers and do-it-yourself BI… but it never really worked out that way. Business users requested canned reports and went to a query guru to request special reports as required.

The following was pretty normal: after finding some interesting fact in a tabular report a business user would pull the data and build a Powerpoint slide to present the results. As interfaces improved you soon could access the data directly and create Excel or Powerpoint charts without copying the data by hand. In other words data visualization was separated from reporting.

The BI vendors caught on to this, recognizing that data presentation is important, and soon all of the BI tools offered some charting options. But the next step was equally interesting. Charting is a bit of an art… so the BI tools programmed in some directives to help you select the chart that fit your data and that would be visually pleasing. So simple charting as visualization was built-in with some simple assistance to help you with the simple art of presentation.

From here vendors went in two directions, one after the other.

First, dashboards were developed that were customizable and these applications, either semi-static or dynamic, caught your eye. Red lights and limits could be built into a heads-up display. The art of presentation was pretty crude and loudness: bright colors and lots of moving dials and eye-candy won the day. But as far as presentation goes, dashboards are just multiple simple charts arranged on a screen. QlikView led this charge.

Next, a new set of visualization products were rolled out by vendors like Tableau and Pentaho. Users saw that some very powerful pictures could be drawn showing data in a time series… and showing the series changing over time. Since the presentation was more nuanced and more “artistic” the automated assistance required more sophistication and this is where the vendors are now fighting to differentiate themselves.

But an interesting thing was happening outside BI… and this is the point of this note. In the same way that PowerPoint led reporting to charting, a new presentation technique called infographics is emerging. It is the state of the art in data visualization… and Powerpoint… and art… rolled into one. And it is very impactful. I imagine that the next wave of BI tools must embrace this more advanced presentation technique.

Here is how I think this plays out.

The advanced data visualization vendors will provide a palette that directly accesses data, and big data, to allow very custom infographics… you can see some of this at Piktochart although it is more about templates than free form development. But since this is art… tools will be developed that help the art-impaired like me to build nice displays and they will do this by analyzing the data and recommending one or more meaningful infographic displays.

So, maybe in the same way that Powerpoint data presentation anticipated charting in BI tools… Infographics anticipates the next data presentation facility for BI.

I suppose that this is not really a controversial conclusion… and I imagine that if I took the time I could find several start-ups who are way ahead of me on this… but sometimes it’s more fun to daydream it up on my own… and pretend that I’m out front…

One thought on “Thinking about BI: Infographics is the next phase…”

  1. Hi Rob, thanks for another pertinent post as ever.

    I myself have recently been playing with a simple JavaScript library that was developed by the now head of the NY Times visualisation team: Mike Bostock. Its called d3.js ( and is an amazing new approach to binding data to the HTML DOM.

    The work Mike and his team have done at NYT is already the stuff of legend. Design truly has met data, and vice versa.

    I also see that the d3 library has been included in the latest SAPUI5 UI technology from SAP. Even I have been able to render some really interesting visualisations (motion charts of retail sales data, force-directed networks etc.) and I now find myself on a very interesting journey indeed – it seems that suddenly a whole new class of business insight has been discovered. I admit these visualisations tend to be bespoke to a particular application or dataset, but the power of d3 means you don’t have to invest too much design effort to uncover a new perspective.

    Furthermore, if you combine the flexibility of d3 with the power of in-memory storage then we may well see a shift in the BI paradigm: a whole new class of insight may soon become available to every business data user (this includes Infographics and ‘info-animations’) These will no longer be just the domain of journalists and high-end web developers.

    Apologies for the hyperbole, but I’m still coming to terms with the all of the possibilities.


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