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Better Business Deserves Better Images
With an improved graphics functionality, SPSS strives to make its solution more user-friendly.
Posted Sep 8, 2008
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Predictive analytics software provider SPSS released its newest product today, Viz Designer. The product is intended to provide enhanced design capabilities that fit the needs of both the novice and the advanced user. With Viz Designer, says Richard Hren, director of product marketing at SPSS, the power of graphics will be limited "only by your imagination -- technology isn't the impediment anymore.” 

SPSS was already using this advanced graphing technology internally, Hren says, with nViZn (pronounced "envision"), a Java-based software development kit (SDK) launched in 2000. The nViZn application -- which Hren explains was built based on the vision laid out in the book The Grammar of Graphics, by Leland Wilkinson -- eventually became so popular that SPSS users were demanding a similar tool. “They were really looking for ways of making the communication channel as compelling and exciting as the analytical work behind it,” Hren says. The intent, however, is not only to allow users to customize the output in a way that fits their organizational needs, but also to let them do so in a quick and easy manner. More important, it needs to be done in a way that doesn’t require expensive graphical programmers or graphic designers. The goal, he adds, is to “put this very powerful graphics technology in the hands of the average user…. It’s the rocket science without the rocket scientist on your staff.”

Hren says some of Viz Designer's features include:

  • a drag-and-drop interface;
  • better visual design;
  • easy manipulation; and
  • replicable templates and style sheets for use throughout the organization.

While SPSS does provide ready-made templates, Viz Designer gives users the freedom to play around with the code to tailor the graphics according to their needs using either vizML (visualization markup language) or graphics programming language (GPL). “In a programming sense,” explains Tim Daciuk, director of worldwide demo resources at SPSS, users are “effectively unbound in what [they] want to do. If you can think it, you can make it happen.”

The obvious problem here is that users may not know what they don’t know. In that case, Hren says there are three ways most users can and will learn the software's breadth of functionality:

  • The software is preprogrammed to determine which graphics fit best with the data you’ve provided, suggesting options that you can then choose to manipulate.
  • Customers might see an interesting image in the local newspaper or magazine and want to know how to do the same with their data. (Hren says some customers have already reached out to him to do precisely that.)
  • SPSS is in the early stages of fostering an online developers community on the company Web site, where people can post examples, suggestions, and graph types to share. Though the company itself can’t come close to programming every possible algorithm, Hren says, the community certainly has a better shot.

Hren also notes that Viz Designer can be integrated with SPSS’s various products, including:

  • SPSS Statistics;
  • Clementine (data mining and predictive modeling); and
  • Dimensions (survey research).

As the product line continues to expand, Hren says, SPSS is committed to ensuring that all the pieces work together seamlessly.

“There are two audiences for any advanced analytics product like SPSS,” says Dan Vesset, program vice president of business analytics research at industry analyst firm IDC. “The analysts themselves and the rest of the organization that can benefit from the results of the analysis.” Perhaps the most valuable contribution that solutions such as Viz Designer can have, he adds, will be the ability to bridge the gap between the two camps. In time, business leaders will be able to conduct the analysis without significant statistical training, but at least for now, analysts have a strong visualization tool for presenting information to business decision-makers, he says. 

“From a quality perspective, I believe it's one of the leading data visualization tools, since it's based on the SPSS nViZn technology,” Vesset says. However, the sophistication of the tool still requires users to be “experts” in analytics in order to fully take advantage of SPSS and its various products. Therefore, he believes adoption of SPSS users is unlikely to extend too far beyond the company's existing customer base. 

Nevertheless, Vesset does see SPSS heading down the path toward fulfilling its promise of deeper penetration within the enterprise: “The new product can influence the broader reliance on advanced analytics from the business end users, because the new visualization make the whole experience more user-friendly.” 
 
 
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