Tableau User Conference 2014: Unlocking the Creative Ingenuity of the User

Trip report

This year in Seattle, Tableau Software reinvented the user conference. From Seattle Mayor Ed Murray’s official decree of September 9th as Data Day, to celebrity-studded keynotes, stunning visual displays, and slow motion video stations and hovering camera drones to capture attendee engagement, Tableau effectively transformed the everyday industry event into an interactive, visual data experience. “The next big wave in computing isn’t automation,” announced Tableau CEO Christian Chabot to a crowd of over 5k at Tuesday morning’s welcome keynote. “It’s unleashing the creative potential of humanity.”

And why talk about artistic creativity at a data conference? Because, said Chabot, data analysis is a creative process – it’s the very goal of a modern business data strategy –, and we need to start thinking about it that way. People who work with data are emerging as some of the most capable creative problem solvers of the modern organization.

Creativity in analytics means better: better answers, better discoveries, better awareness. And, truth be told, as inherently visual learners, communicators, and thinkers, we have a lot to learn by studying designers and their creative tools – and then leveraging these lessons into the way we approach analytics. To support creative problem solving, Tableau believes that analytics software needs to do the same four things that creative tools do – and they need to do them as natively, just like the creative tools do.

This is Tableau’s four-step “design philosophy,” and how they are architecting an analytics system with the goal of unleashing the creativity of the user. First, these tools need to encourage experimentation by giving users the ability to move fluidly from conceptual sketches to detailed models in an iterative flow. Then: speed. Artists need immediate feedback in order to maintain connection and focus with their ideas. And, they require expressiveness – when it comes to data, business software has seen a distinct lack of “expressiveness:” domination by templates and wizards have, in effect, constrained and limited the creativity of analysts to a narrow, pre-approved path of thinking. Finally, these tools must begin and end with self-service.

Giving the user control over their experience is pivotal in a creative environment – it’s the ability to translate an idea to a part of the creative flow. Data-driven organizations today must build a culture of creative analytics that is empowering, satisfying, and brings out the best in data creatives. With the release of v8.2 earlier this year, Tableau took the first step in its vision to “give [users] the ultimate canvas to express thoughts that supports easy, direct actions on data.” Tableau v8.2 also introduced the concept of story points to express ideas through structure and narrative arc and context, but that’s only the first release in a roadmap of storytelling with a long way to go, and Tableau seems ready.

Going forward, Tableau is concentrating innovations in seven key areas: visual analytics, performance, data preparation, storytelling, enterprise, cloud, and – serendipitously timed alongside the unveiling of Apple’s iPhone 6 and the Apple Watch – mobile, with Project Elastic. Amidst a sea of furiously tweeting smartphones and tablets, VP of Mobile and Strategic Growth Dave Story named mobile the “most inspiring creative communicator of the last decade.”

To prove it, Tableau is introducing a new standalone tablet app – Project Elastic – to curate a data experience that gives access and interactivity to the mobile user and takes visual analysis beyond the desktop. Project Elastic will allow users to shape insight of raw material with the swipe of the fingers by using “all that drag and drop analytic goodness” in an intuitive, touch-responsive interface.

There are a few noticeable gaps in the Project Elastic prototype – including built-in connectors to third-party data sources and a limited array of visualization options, however Story said that Tableau Software intends to spend as much on R&D in the next two years as it has in the past ten, and its mobile strategy will get a large part of that budget. For more information on Tableau and Project Elastic, visit

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