Visual Data Discovery: 4 Storytelling Approaches Compared

Qlik, SAP, SAS, and Tableau Software deliver the latest table stakes in visual discovery: storyboard capabilities. Here's how they stack up.

Cindi Howson, Founder, BI Scorecard

September 4, 2014

5 Min Read

It would be nice if most data analyses ended with valuable decisions or actions. But in reality, many analyses end with a PowerPoint, finely tuned for board room presentations. Data is explored, analyzed, filtered, transformed, and then exported into a storytelling medium where it becomes static. The PowerPoint may be used to support or refute a hypothesis or to provide a status update.

But what if that same data and analysis could remain within the BI tool while delivering a boardroom-quality presentation? Could those death-by-PowerPoint meetings become more effective, interactive work sessions? Can the data be better presented, not only to support a hypothesis, but also to guide a decision maker to a logical conclusion that compels action?

[Want more on data visualization? Read 5 Big Business Intelligence Trends For 2014.]

This is the vision behind recent innovations in a number of visual data-discovery tools. Tableau Software and Qlik call them story points and storytelling, respectively, while SAP calls them storyboards and infographics. SAS, meanwhile, brings live integration within PowerPoint itself.

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While these features have similar names, the capabilities differ greatly. Here's a closer look.

Tableau story points
Tableau released the concept of story points in version 8.2 in June. In this approach, a user can insert a data visualization onto a canvas and save the filters behind the data analysis. The idea of story points is to let users present the data as a story, with a beginning, middle, and end. The banner of the canvas can include a storyline title that is clickable. For example, in the story below, "Profits are increasing" is a clickable title. Multiple visualizations can be linked together to create a PowerPoint-like slideshow. Within each page, users can adjust the filters. As Tableau explains it, the data tells you what's happening, but the story guides you to an understanding of why it's happening.

QlikTech storytelling
Qlik Sense Desktop was released in July as a free desktop visual-discovery tool based on the vendor's next-generation interface. The vendor has not announced a release date for Qlik Sense for the enterprise, which is currently in beta. In Qlik Sense Desktop, dashboards and individual visualization can be added to a story.

Compared to Tableau's approach, Qlik Sense has a few more bells and whistles for storytelling. First, each page of the story can contain multiple visualizations or snapshotted images with the drill point and filters saved. Also, there is an "effect" option that automatically recolors a chart so top (or bottom) performers stand out (in the image below, higher salaries are highlighted). Additional text can be added to the story, whether a simple annotation or a full paragraph. Images and shapes can also be added to the canvas to create an infographic. In play mode, each slide nicely transitions to the next. Dashboards remain interactive.


SAP Lumira storyboards
SAP added the concept of storyboards to Lumira early this year. In contrast to the Tableau and Qlik approaches, SAP's storyboards are better described as dashboards with multiple visualizations on a single page. Lumira previously lacked the ability to create these simple dashboards, but it's a capability that most other visual data discovery tools already offered.

In addition to supporting visualizations and filters, Lumira storyboards let you add images and text boxes for titles or paragraphs. A version 16 update released in June brought support for infographics -- the ability to add pictograms and shapes to the storyboards.

As shown below, there is a preview feature that shows how the infographic will appear on various devices. With infographics, users can also set color options for images, backgrounds, and some charts. This, of course, should be an expected feature in any BI tool, but it was lacking in earlier Lumira releases.

SAP's infographic capability is an interesting concept, but I found the capabilities too immature to replace PowerPoint. For example, in trying to add a callout, text had to be added in a separate step, and the callout pointer could not be repositioned to connect to a particular image or outlier within the chart.


SAS Visual Analytics and PowerPoint
The SAS Add-In for Microsoft Office is a little-known but powerful feature that lets users access and interact with SAS analyses directly from within Excel, Outlook, and PowerPoint. With this approach, users create visualizations within SAS Visual Analytics. The add-in embeds a Visual Analytics toolbar within PowerPoint from which users can insert visualizations onto the PowerPoint canvas. The visualization is a direct query, not a static export, so it can be refreshed. Users have all of PowerPoint's capabilities to add text and images.


More stories to come?
All of these features reflect a growing trend in how to better present data and findings as part of a cohesive story. I suspect storytelling capabilities will continue to emerge in other visual data discovery tools. And as with any new technology, I expect second and subsequent releases will only improve.

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About the Author(s)

Cindi Howson

Founder, BI Scorecard

Cindi Howson is the founder of BI Scorecard, a resource for in-depth BI product reviews based on exclusive hands-on testing. She has been advising clients on BI tool strategies and selections for more than 20 years. She is the author of Successful Business Intelligence: Unlock the Value of BI and Big Data and SAP Business Objects BI 4.0: The Complete Reference. She is a faculty member of The Data Warehousing Institute (TDWI) and a contributing expert to InformationWeek. Before founding BI Scorecard, she was a manager at Deloitte & Touche and a BI standards leader for a Fortune 500 company. She has been quoted in The Wall Street Journal, the Irish Times, Forbes, and Business Week. She has an MBA from Rice University.

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