An Analogy for Data Visualization: Tableau’s Iron Viz Championship

If you have ever seen me present on the topic of visual analytics, you have heard us use Tableau’s Iron Viz Championship as an analogy for good data visualization. The ‘Iron Viz’ is a competition held annually at Tableau’s Conference at various locales throughout the United States. It is the culmination of a year’s worth of Tableau users using the latest in Tableau product developments to create innovative Tableau Public dashboards. There is only one way to receive an invite to compete in the Iron Viz, and that is to win one of three Tableau Public feeder contests held throughout the year leading up to the annual conference. During the contest, the three ‘Iron Vizzers’ compete live in front of several hundred conference attendees. Each contestant is given the same data set, and they have exactly 20 minutes to create the best data visualization they can before being judged by the audience, the previous year’s winner, and a panel of Tableau product experts.

It is quite a spectacle and a lot of fun. As the contest begins, each competitor walks to the stage through dim lighting and heavy fog. The dramatic music is blaring. The competitors even don chef-like jackets – a nod to the contest’s format borrowed from the Iron Chef television show. After some announcements and introductions from two MC’s, the contest is played out on huge projection screens so the audience can watch every competitor’s move in real-time.

The reason we love this event as an analogy for data visualization is because it is a perfect balance of sizzle and steak – both at their highest levels. The presentation aspect is needed to get the largest audience possible interested in the event and make it an entertaining experience from start to finish. It truly transforms the type of work we do every day into must-see theatre. It guarantees that the event will be ‘remark’-able, enticing the audience to share on social media, write blog posts about it when they return home, and of course, come back in the future for more. At the same time, the three contestants have been thoroughly vetted and are among the best in the world at what they do. The visualizations they are about to pull together promise to be top quality, and are the core of the event. As with data visualization, the data, analysis, and the designer’s ability to communicate that analysis, are the heart of the work. These key elements are strong enough to stand on their own, but the Iron Viz maximizes their effectiveness by helping make them memorable and shareable.

We argue that the best data visualizations are those that not only incorporate data visualization and analysis best practices, but those that also possess a sense of storytelling – whether that be through usability, graphic design, inline insights, or innovative visual approaches that help make the message of the dashboard stick.

Our goal with the Data-Driven Storytelling series is to provide actionable tips that will help you round out your existing corporate dashboards in a way that maximizes their effectiveness in your workplace.

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