“I love to read through thousands of rows of data tables to digest information,” said no one ever. Most of the data that you collect ends up in some kind of standard table of rows and columns. Although you could leave it in this form, it’s not only boring to look at, but also incredibly difficult to actually understand the big picture. Sure, you may get a general sense of what the data holds — you may even be able to spot a pattern or two. But to get a true picture of the story that your data tells, you need visual analytics tools.
What is Visual Analytics?
Falling under the category of business intelligence (BI), visual analytics is basically just visual data analysis. It involves data displayed in a visual chart that makes it easier to understand than the endless rows and columns of a table. This makes it easy to decipher trends at a glance, without taking up too much of your time. Additionally, visual analytics makes data analysis easier to understand for those who aren’t data scientists.
As an example, look at the two pictures below. Which looks more appealing to you: the data table on the left, or the graph on the right?
The data on the right looks like it’s a little easier to work with, doesn’t it? Just imagine trying to spot trends in a giant table in order to, for example, improve the effectiveness of your email marketing. The data on the right is much clearer, allowing you to spot trends with nothing more than a quick peek (not that you’re limited to just a quick peek, of course).
So where does the “analytics” aspect come in? Visual analytics doesn’t just visualize your data — it also performs actual data analysis, too. According to Techopedia, “Generally, what makes visual analytics unique is that the information being visualized involves statistical work or data mining, or other types of analytics work. For instance… a visual interface that simply displays the results of analytics algorithms would be described as visual analytics.”
Common Features of Visual Analytics Tools
Like any other piece of software, there are certain features of visual analytics tools that are standard among every vendor. There are also some that may not be standard, but are necessary to get the most out of your data. This list includes both. If you happen to find yourself evaluating a visual analytics vendor, look for the following:
This should go without saying, as it’s the essence of what makes visual analytics tools… well… visual analytics tools. Data visualization simply refers to the ability to take data sets and present them visually. This could be in a bar chart, pie chart, histogram, scatter plot, cluster graph or any other type of chart or graph.
Data visualizations can be used to present any type of data, from monthly revenue to lead generation to warehouse inventory levels. This means that they’re useful for gaining insights into any process that you want to improve. No matter if you’re trying to discover why your revenue dipped or you just need to compare marketing strategies, data visualization helps simplify your analysis.
Dashboards are where the majority of data visualization takes place. They create charts and graphs for specific data, constantly updating themselves with the latest data. Dashboards are great for at-a-glance or ad-hoc analysis, when you just need to quickly check your data. For example, you can compare the number of leads generated from email sign ups by email type.
The most useful dashboards are real-time dashboards, which update their visualizations in real time. By implementing real-time dashboards, you can monitor the status of whatever data you’re tracking as it happens. This allows you to notice issues as they arise.
The ability to discover issues in real time allows you to address them quickly. Especially in a fast-paced supply chain, fixing issues quickly is a must. It reduces the amount of setbacks that you’d face, such as warehouses with too much inventory or shipments that arrive late.
Integration with Multiple Data Sources
In order to visualize data about various processes, you have to gather them from wherever you collect and store them. This means that your visual analytics tool needs to be able to communicate with all of the different data sources you have in order to pull that data, analyze it and visualize it.
There’s no shortage of data sources that businesses commonly use. The most common source is some kind of database — such as NoSQL, Hadoop or a cloud service — that can hold millions of data points. Not every small business uses databases, however, so integrating visual analytics tools with other software systems is also common. This could include pulling supplier, distribution and inventory data from SCM software; customer and lead information from a CRM; and employee data from a HR system.
Lastly, as we all learned in kindergarten, sharing is caring. Why silo your data visualizations and other analyses when you can provide access to other business users within your organization?
Collaboration features allow multiple users to view and work with the data that you’re analyzing. This functionality allows you to decide what type of analysis to perform as a group. Additional benefits include the ability to share your analysis with other business users, add comments on different visualizations and hold discussions in the visual analytics platform.
The 5 Best Visual Analytics Tools
At this point, you’ve heard enough about what visual analytics tools are. Now it’s time to look at who’s leading the industry. Below are five of the best visual analytics tools on the market, each of which is a great option for filling your data analytics needs.
The most self-explanatory system on our list, this solution is built exclusively for working with visual analytics. SAS provides one of the biggest storage capacities along with its system, making it a great option for bigger businesses that collect massive amounts of data.
Qlik is one of the most popular analytics platforms on the market. Used by enterprises and SMBs alike, the system combines an easy-to-use interface with robust analytics functionality. Qlik offers several products, including QlikView and Qlik Sense, from which businesses can choose the best analytics tool for them.
Tableau is widely known as one of the industry leaders in self-service BI. Similarly to Qlik, Tableau offers several products, including Desktop, Online and Server. The available collaboration features are top-notch, making it a great tool for teams of data scientists, business analysts and average Joes alike.
THe Tibco Spotfire system provides easy integration with one of the widest selections of data sources on the market. Using anything from NoSQL databases to Salesforce and Twitter, wherever your data is, Tibco can almost surely connect to it. And that’s not even mentioning its robust analytics functionality, including location and predictive analytics.
Birst is unique, as it’s the only open-source software vendor on this list. As you’d expect from a visual analytics tool on a top 5 list, Birst has powerful visualization features. And as an open-source product, you can add any features it doesn’t have to the source code, making it that much more powerful of a tool.