Do You Swivel?

Finally! In Swivel, I think I’ve found (thanks to this Fast Company article) an easy-to-use way to create simple web-based charts.

The Swivel guys do a bang-up job telling their story in the About Us section of their web site. I think too many technology outfits fall short in this area. From the hows (origination of the concept and their revenue model), the whys (their motivation), and the whats (a tour of their new place), to kudos to key external contributors, to a reference to an advisor’s hobby of trumpet-playing advisor, it’s all there – and founders Dimov and Mulloy paint a great picture with their words. But they fall just short of a 10 — I’ll give them a 9 — in this area due to no use of at least one chart in this section to help tell their story.

I see their pricing model is both simple and fair: The service is free if you make your data public, and fee-based if you seek privacy. I suspect that their best market would be SMBs (small to medium-sized businesses), where slimmer budgets and demand for easy-to-use tools would seem a nice fit for a Swivel-like data sharing and exploration solution.

I found importing data and creating a chart a quick and painless process (see my first Swivel chart here). I certainly haven’t pushed the envelope with an extreme volume of data, but suspect that Swivel isn’t really targeting a power user conducting complex analysis and/or using loads of data. I’d guess that their target user is the average spreadsheet-literate person, and there are plenty of them out there.

I’ve been showing charts of all kinds to folks for a couple of decades now. Here’s a sampling of the things I’ve learned, and continually encourage others who create and present charts to consider:
1. What question(s) is(are) your chart answering? Is that the right question?
2. Is your chart title structured like an eye-grabbing newspaper story headline or a stale “Y vs. X”?
3. Do your graphics utilize color, proportion, and minimization (as espoused by the likes of Edward Tufte and Garr Reynolds) to make the data’s message slap-you-in-the-face clear to everyone in your audience?
4. Does your chart incorporate an image to add context and/or emotion to the graph without interfering with its interpretation?

I believe that the majority of creators of charts still lack both awareness and appreciation of the power of chart design in conveying meaning. And it’s usually not their fault – most have not been exposed to training in basic data visualization design techniques, or are not even aware that better ways to present data exist.

Swivel is definitely a wonderful step in the right direction when it comes to sharing data and getting people talking about how to use data to improve products, services, even the world. I hope that, as Swivel evolves, it will somehow provide ways to educate its users on how to design visually provoking displays of actionable data. One way to do that might be to provide some video tutorials on chart design, delivered by one of the founders themselves or external subject matter experts. Another could involve periodic awards (e.g. usage credits, contest prizes) to talented users for those public charts which convey the best combo of, say, meaningful data and chart design.

I look forward to watching the Swivel story unfold.