The 20th century media theorist and scholar Marshall McLuhan once stated, “We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us”. A great example of this maxim would be the invention of the internet. Originally developed for the military however it has shaped our world in so many ways.
The device you are reading this on now, is another remarkable tool and contains many more tools or applications. But how do some of these apps shape how we work, live and think?
And more specifically, how do our business intelligence tools shape the way we present data?
This was a topic discussed at Tapestry 2017 by Jewell Loree, a project manager at Tableau.
Jewel found that when visualizing data and trying to tell a story, a powerful tool like Tableau had so many options it caused ‘an imagination gap – you don’t know where to begin’.
Restrictions have a liberating power
It’s counter-intuitive but imposing limitations forces us to be creative – to tell better stories.
Another 20th century great, the composer Igor Stravinsky, echoed this in saying:
The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one’s self
Jewel uses the example of her blog and how the flexibility of WordPress meant she could shape her blog anyway she wanted. She found that by using Atavist, it was more limited but she was now “forced to really show something happening”
The Storytelling team at Tableau considers this now for every iteration of the tool. They want to design it so that a user is inclined to incorporate storytelling best practices such as
- show, don’t tell
- stories should have narrative flow
- stories should be broken down into consumable chunks
- stories should provide context
But of course, this doesn’t just apply to Tableau’s storytelling ability. For all BI tools we must be aware of how the choice of tool, and its setup, affects the outcome. Considering this relationship between tool, setup and outcome and how we both shape, and are shaped by our tools, offers a more integrated approach to 21st century tool use.