Tuesday, October 26, 2010

History: Swivel

One of the things I find most valuable is the history of a thing. In virtually every organization I've worked with, history has been vital, but massively underappreciated. At the end of the day, organizations hemorrhage institutional knowledge -- they remember what decision was made, but not why. Often this is because they fail to appreciate the necessity of documentation and/or the importance of the reasoning behind the decision. Inevitably, they thrash through the same thought processes over and over again when they could be moving on to the next thing.

All of this is a way of saying that history is a reluctant teacher. It stands there in the corner, knowing the answers to many of your questions, but will only enlighten you if you ask. (Data is another reluctant teacher -- as many of our questions can be answered with data on hand if only we know how to ask, but that's another discussion entirely.)

One of the things that was forwarded to me recently by a thoughtful friend (thanks, JA!) was this interview with the founders of Swivel (over at the EagerEyes blog). Swivel was an information visualization platform similar to what Tableau offers and was one of the earliest players in the information visualization space. Their value proposition: upload your data and do wonderful things with it.

Swivel is now no more. It's .com URL is even defunct. But it left a really useful set of lessons that should be heeded. The interview with the founders is truly illuminating.

I have to be careful reading this information because I see the words, but I hear "lack of product management". I need to be careful this isn't hubris on my part. Still, it's a common pattern with start ups.

My read is that Swivel produced nice technology, but its market wasn't mature enough for their solution. It's advanced buyers didn't need visualization technology, since they already knew how to do it, and its neophyte buyers didn't see the problem as urgent enough to pay for. Tableau seems to be growing quickly enough to indicate the market has matured since then and that this may no longer be a problem. (I'd be very interested in Tableau's buyer and user personae.) Swivel also apparently distracted themselves with features that were "kewl", but not necessarily something their buyers were longing to pay for. Finally, Swivel admits that they didn't actually have any information visualization specialists on staff until later. This yielded features like huge color palettes, when the human eye ceases to be able to distinguish between about 20.

Sic transit gloria mundi.

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