Lindsay Betzendahl is a Tableau Zen Master and Tableau Public Ambassador. She has been working in the healthcare field for over 15 years and is currently a Consultant, Design Specialist, at HealthDataViz. Lindsay is an adjunct professor at Temple University where she teaches a graduate course on data visualization and Tableau. Her new book, which she co-authored with two colleagues, helps healthcare professionals learn to create clear and compelling visualizations.
Additionally, Lindsay is the founder of #ProjectHealthViz, a community data visualization initiative that strives to ’tell the stories of our health’ through visualization and actively participates in the data visualization community sharing her knowledge while continuously learning from others. Lindsay has a bachelor’s from Bucknell University and a master’s degree from the University of Connecticut and currently lives in Pennsylvania with her husband and two boys.
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Welcome back to the PolicyViz podcast. I am your host, Jon Schwabish. On this week’s episode of the show, I chat with my friend Lindsay Betzendahl from HealthDataViz. Lindsay is a Tableau Zen Master, overall awesome person, and we talk about her journey into Tableau, we talk about some of the work that we’ve done together, and we talk about just a variety of things when it comes to data visualization. So I’m keeping the introduction really short and sweet this week. So here is my discussion with Lindsay.
Jon Schwabish: Hey Lindsay, how are you?
Lindsay Betzendahl: Hey Jon, I’m good.
JS: Yeah, hanging in there?
LB: Hanging in there on this recording on a lovely Monday, lovely as [inaudible 00:00:55] like one can be.
JS: Right, yeah, because it’s Monday. So thanks for agreeing to do the show. We’ve been working together now, not just like Twitter friends, but actually working together on some things for the last six months, eight months, something like that, so that’s been pretty fun. And I’ve learned a ton of Tableau stuff from you. My big thing about Tableau is the map projection, and you’re like, yeah, you just do it this way. I was like, oh, that’s amazing, okay, problem solved. So I thought maybe it would be useful for people to understand a little bit about your journey into Tableau. I get a sense that a lot of people didn’t start their data or DataViz career, like, starting in Tableau, but they end up gravitating towards it to it from some other way. So, I was just curious, you talk a little bit about that, and then, how you ended up using it so much becoming so good at it, and writing books and blogs, and then becoming a Tableau Zen Master, like, it’s a pretty interesting journey, I think.
LB: It is. I mean, I probably years ago wouldn’t have expected – I mean, many of us, I think, say that, like, you don’t – things happen, I would say, things happen for a reason, like, all these things end up in your lives, people come into your lives, you develop relationships, job changes or you’re forced to change something, and somehow you end up at this place. You’re like, you wouldn’t have predicted necessarily, to be where I am. And I guess, that’s probably true for many, but it definitely feels true for me. I didn’t have a trajectory of even being in data visualization at all or using data, I would say; that was not my career trajectory originally. You probably know that I started out getting my master’s degree in marriage and family therapy. So I did therapy with youth and their families for many years, actually doing in-home therapy. So I would go to people’s homes, I would do the therapy in their living room, after school, wherever they lived, if they were placed at their home, all kinds of things like that, and really being involved at the lowest level of being [inaudible 00:03:00] people’s lives. And it was a tough, but rewarding job, so I ended up moving out of direct care after a couple of years, and moving to a company that did more of the managed care aspect of it, but still having direct linkages to doing therapy.
So I did, so I would more meet with kids, like, on hospitals and coordinate care with providers to try to get kids into the right care at the right time for the right length of time, so that people weren’t dwindling on hospital units, when they really needed to go to a residential facility and try to do all this coordination of care. And it was there that I kind of got into the data, like, the organization, as many of you collect a ton of data and healthcare data, like, there’s so much at it. You go to the doctor, the hospital, and they’re collecting all kinds of information on you that they keep obviously records of. And so, it was there that I started actually tabulating my own information. I worked with kids who are getting stuck in the emergency room. And so, I would start – I started asking questions just on my own of like, I wonder what the average age, is it a certain age of kid who ends up stuck in the emergency room, or that’s coming in on a Monday versus a Friday, or how long are they there, what is their outcome, do they end up in the hospital, do they go back home, like, I was just curious. And so, I started keeping track of all this for a couple of months.
And then, I had no idea, I should have known, but I didn’t, that the organization collected this already. All of this was put into a computer, I’m typing all this in anyway and saying [inaudible 00:04:39] and they came out that day. They had data for this day, I didn’t know, I never looked at the reports because I would just do the work, not analyze the reports. And I’m like, oh my gosh, they have hundreds and hundreds of reports. So I got really into just understanding and being able to change maybe what I did based on understanding the data, like, being more predictive of, hey, I don’t know, given all this criteria, this kid might be hard to move out of ED, because they’re 13, and they’re aggressive in the hospital, I don’t know, I was able to kind of think more when I had the data. And so, yeah, I ended up slowly, I think [inaudible 00:05:26] you start kind of in your career making choices on, I think, I want apply for this internal position versus this one, do I want to be a supervisor of the clinical department, or do I want to move into the quality data department, which was, would obviously, getting more into the data. And so, I started making these kind of shifts and choices and relationships of people who are more in the data side of things, and that’s how it kind of got started, where I was very interested in it. And the long story short is that, once I found out what the reports looked like, I realized that we were not doing our best to use this data. We were not visualizing it well. Right? And so, I was on the end of – I didn’t even know we had data, and then I saw it, I didn’t know what to do with it, because it was all like just tables.
So once I was in the department that I could make actual change, I looked to find what was out there that would help us improve, you know, we could do so much more with it. So yeah, I found Tableau, and at the time, I wasn’t in a position of like, hey, let’s purchase this. Right? I was what was called a network manager, but I wasn’t managing people. I didn’t have any decisions in the company per se. But smart enough to say, well, the way you get people to buy something or agree to an idea is to show value. So I figured out how to download Tableau Public, the free version, well, I couldn’t save anything, and I couldn’t publish it to Tableau Public, because I was using data with PHI, I figured out that I could do enough at one time to keep my computer on, to keep public open that I could use our data and make charts and make dashboards, and then show them to some of my leadership. And so, the interactive part, which kind of blew their mind at the time, and this is back in 2014, they had never really seen an interactive dashboard, particularly with their data. And so, it only took about six months of kind of me showing some of these things and being very vigilant in it that they agreed to purchase a handful of licenses, so the folks on the data team start building stuff out. Now, at the time, it was just like more static – not static, but we didn’t have a type of server, we just had the licenses to build some stuff, show some reports, show some value. And that’s how I got started, where I was kind of leading the charge, just because I kind of came up with the idea and was passionate to make it happen and see it through.
JS: It’s like such a common story that I hear is like, I was really interested, and I tried some stuff out, and then I showed it, and people were like, oh my goodness. And then, like, yeah, it’s so interesting. So the data that they were sharing, I guess, was it just like tables in PDF format, they’re just like on some drive that nobody really looked at, but it was just like automatically piped out?
LB: Yeah, so there were so many reports that people would ask for, and they would just either be daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly reports, whatever, and they would go to a folder, well, you just have one after the other, and if it was your job to look at a certain report, you would be pretty familiar with looking at this table. The problem is, like – so yeah, there’d be one person who would really know well, and they’re like, oh yeah, I totally find value in this. And I’d be like, yeah, but you’re sure you’re not missing something, like, how you look, like, how are you really comparing all these numbers, these are huge reports. I don’t know, because I was like, this is terrible. I wouldn’t know a thing. I don’t know. I just got really passionate about making it happen, and yeah, I think people started, you know, I think, with anything, if you are energetic about something, no matter what your mission or your value is, people will feel that, I think then believe in it. Right? So, I mean, I just kept pursuing it, and the leadership around me were you’ve got a great idea; I mean, even my CEO at the time was just like, you come to my desk, which was like rare for the CEO to do that. But he’d like, I want you to build this report for me, and kind of like, don’t tell anybody right now, and I’m not going through the right channels, but I can do that.
JS: You’re like, you’re the CEO, by the way.
LB: He’s like, I can be all right. But [inaudible 00:10:13] I love this so much, I want to make this happen, we need to show this to our stakeholders and do more so that we get it going. And people just really supported the innovative ideas and make it happen, and it’s pretty cool [inaudible 00:10:29] because they’re pretty grateful about it. They’ve come so far, but yeah.
JS: So then how did you go from basically learning Tableau, having this internal success with internal data, to more on the public side, I mean, I guess, it’s – I mean, I don’t think there’s any way to solve this, but as part of the Tableau Zen Master program, along with a lot of their programs that you really do need to be publishing stuff publicly, which is the only way, I guess, they could do it, but I’m sure there are amazing people doing amazing work in Tableau that their stuff never sees the light of day outside the organization – so how did you move or combine, I guess, the two probably?
LB: Yeah, you’re right, it’s interesting. I mean, I sometimes feel like the biggest fraud, as I’m sure, many do, when you know people internally or you know people that are not in the community who are just fantastic wizards at this stuff, yeah, so that’s sort of the nature of the way the Zen Master program is, is definitely like a community based recognition program is what they call it. But to that point, I had been using Tableau for approximately four years before I ever kind of really started doing anything outside of my organization. And part of that was, I was definitely a consumer of the community in the sense that I looked on Tableau Public for ideas, I downloaded dashboards to learn something, I checked the forums, I definitely reached out because I needed to grow. And so, there are formal avenues to doing that, which I never took, I never took a formal Tableau class. So I took the informal route, which was learning from what everyone’s putting out there already, the free stuff – the blogs people are doing, the visit the days, I would look at the gallery, and just look through it. And so, the more I did that, the more I realized that there was this community out there. Obviously, these were real people. They were doing this great stuff. And December of, I guess, it was 2017, I’m going to 2018, I was on vacation in Vermont in my parents’ house, and had some time, and I was like, I guess, I’ll get on Twitter, I hear that’s where people are. And I had [inaudible 00:12:49] I was like…
JS: I’ve heard about this new social media thing called Twitter.
LB: [inaudible 00:12:55] the funny thing is I had apparently already had a Twitter account for 10 years, and had never used it. So I was like, wow…
JS: Early adopter, late user.
LB: Totally, like, I never used it. It’s funny, because it’s like your 10-year anniversary, I was like, huh [inaudible 00:13:13] I don’t know what Twitter is, how many characters can I use, I don’t know. [inaudible 00:13:18]. So I don’t know where I heard, that that’s where I could find or connect to people. Right? Because you kind of needed some platform to talk to the folks who are posting on Tableau Public [inaudible 00:13:31] doesn’t necessarily have a communication part to it. So yeah, [inaudible 00:13:36] following some other Zen Masters, some other people that I just knew in the community, names that were familiar, and I ended up getting involved in the Makeover Monday, which is a common story. And for those who don’t know, it’s just a weekly dataset that you’re tasked with re-visualizing hypothetically better and with more data techniques, and making it easier to understand. There’s often really crappy visualizations they try to [inaudible 00:14:07] say, this isn’t really effective, do better. And that was a way for me not just to connect, but to try to learn new skills, but it really was how I figured out kind of who’s who, what’s going on, where to connect, who to reach out to, and from just being involved, weekly, regularly, I got very passionate about the relationships and the connections and the knowledge that people had. And so, less than six months later, I started my own blog, which again, was not something I anticipated. I wasn’t thinking like, I’m going to start, this is my goal, I love writing or something like, I don’t actually. And it also wasn’t because I thought, oh, I should write a blog because everybody else is. That’s another, I think some people are like, oh, I have to write a blog to be X, Y, or Z or [inaudible 00:15:01]. And I had no intentions of climbing any illusionary ladder here, like, this was just, I wanted to grow, I wanted to learn, I wanted to share, like, I don’t know, I just thought it’d be an interesting exercise.
LB: Like, how the hell do I start a blog. So, yeah, I started a blog, and then continued working, connecting with folks, I started my own community data driven initiative called Project HealthViz, because I’m passionate about healthcare and really wanted to start promoting or helping stories of our life. I had spent 15 years in healthcare, and it was still important to me to be able to bring awareness of different healthcare conditions, having my background being in behavioral health, I know the stigma of mental health and substance use, and I thought, there’s stigma around plenty of healthcare issues that this was one way to just get people more involved in visualizing that sort of data, versus like all the perhaps more lighthearted, fun stuff, like, movie ratings. I was like, this stuff means something, and I see a lot more of that today, where people are visualizing very difficult topics or issues and social issues. But even like five or six years ago, I saw little less of that, so it’s definitely like, I think people are more interested now in making change with what they are [inaudible 00:16:29].
JS: Right. You mentioned earlier that you were – you used this word curious, that you were curious about taking the data and these tables and these PDFs and just doing a better job, and I wonder, for someone listening to this, who is maybe starting out in their DataViz career, or they’re just learning Tableau or any tool really, where do you put curiosity in your ranking of how important certain things are when it comes to visualizing data – is that the most important thing you think is just to be curious?
LB: Yeah, it’s a loaded question. Because you probably…
JS: Yeah, it is. It’s a totally loaded question. That’s my goal with these podcast interviews, just like, just toss it off and let you just knock it.
LB: Yeah, nothing easy. No [inaudible 00:17:15] percent though, because, for one, I think you’re most creative when you’re actually curious about the work you’re engaged with. So, I mean, I’ve certainly worked with clients that I struggled to be creative, and it’s probably because I’m not interested or curious about it. But I don’t think that that means you can’t be curious. It could be a topic you don’t like, but you [inaudible 00:17:42] to question and think about, I mean, I have some clients I work with data that I’m really not familiar with at all. Even though it’s healthcare, it’s just a subset of healthcare now. But sometimes you don’t know something, you can be certainly curious. And I think for me, it’s being curious about not just the topic, not just also what the data is telling me or what it’s not telling me; it’s also being curious about how can I – curious about myself, how can I visualize this, how can I make this insightful, how can I bring change or insights. It’s all these things about kind of feeding your curiosity, which I think feeds your creativity, your engagement with your clients. So yeah, it’s huge, I mean, I don’t think you’d do good work if you’re not [inaudible 00:18:38]
JS: Yeah. So when you’re working with a client, and you’re having this process, and they’re giving you their data or you’re going out and grabbing the data, to what extent do you feel like, you as the visualization or dashboard creator, need to know the content, like, there’s like the spectrum, like, you need to understand obviously the data, oh this is missing, and why is this an outlier and all that, but you mentioned you have some clients who were like, they’re working in parts of healthcare that you don’t have familiarity with, so how far down the road as the DataViz person you go to understand the content, and how far down that road do you go, usually?
LB: Sometimes pretty far, I mean, so I worked – for me, I work in an organization called HealthDataViz. And obviously, we were able to be very hyper focused on one sector of the business world or whatever. So, as I was suggesting earlier, even within healthcare, there are plenty of things even as someone who’s only ever worked in healthcare, don’t know yet. But I couldn’t imagine having any variety of business sectors that as a consultant to have to figure out how to do retail to finance, to healthcare, to social technology, whatever. I think that would be very difficult because your level of knowledge, to be able to ask the right questions, I think would be very limited. And so, for us, it’s not someone saying, here’s my data, just visualize it. We’re engaging in really deep conversations about challenging clients to, is this the right metric, what does this mean. Based on what this means, is it most appropriate, like, do we need to do a year over year, or is it [inaudible 00:20:32] like some of the stuff [inaudible 00:20:33] does matter based on what the metrics are, what the organization does. There’s just a lot of questions you wouldn’t know to ask I think, and it does, I think help you better design, because you’re understanding how someone is really going to use it. Right? You know the questions asking about persona development, how these people are going to use this dashboard. Because you can put yourself potentially in that position, say, if I’m trying to get the answer to this question. I know which metrics to look at, in which order, because I understand what they are. And so, therefore, they should go here in this placement. There’s just a lot of things, I think, it is important to know as much as you can. I mean, obviously, there’s a limit, but we do a lot of interviews, so we can ask really detailed questions like beyond just what is the metric definition. It’s tell me about how you use this report, tell me about how you think through these things that you do have currently on the page, where do you go next, what’s your next [inaudible 00:21:32] like, from an actual user standpoint.
JS: And is that process formalized, like, do you have a thing that they need to fill out, or is that just in your kickoff conversation or kickoffs’ conversations, having the data, is that just like an informal, like, you have a conversation, you then, Lindsay, go and play with the data, then you have another conversation to be able to ask them some questions, or, is there like a more formal process where you’re like, here’s the thing we need you to fill out?
LB: Yeah, it’s a bit more formal in terms of our discovery [inaudible 00:22:03] a lot of time to try to do that discovery work. And depending on the client, we often do a number of interviews. So large clients, we might do 20 interviews with [inaudible 00:22:13] using the data; if it’s a smaller organization, a smaller project, maybe it’s one or two. And we lay out some of the questions in advance, sometimes it’s a little more informal trying to just understand how they use it, but it provides a ton of knowledge, both for making sure we’re designing to the right person. But also, it really helps us get that big framework of the scope of the data and understanding it in a way that you’re just not going to get if someone hands you a file and says, all right, here’s all the stuff, but visualize it, here’s kind of what we want to look like, or here’s what we need on the page, but you’re kind of tasked to really understand it. I think there’s something missing if you don’t get more of those inner details.
JS: Yeah. So we’ve talked a lot about Tableau, and I’m sure you use a whole other suite of tools in and around Tableau. But I’ve noticed over the last few weeks or whatever, you’ve been writing about and doing some videos on Figma – folks, where I work at Urban, love Figma. And I was just curious if you could talk a little bit about how you’ve been incorporating it, what you’d like about it, how you integrate your Figma work and then into Tableau.
LB: Yeah, so I’ve been using Figma for a little over a year, although not as intensely until probably this year. I stumbled upon it more as someone recommended an alternative to making shapes in PowerPoint. I think, if that’s why you’re thinking of Figma is, and you’re really missing out, because the tool does a ton more, and so, as a very similar story to my getting [inaudible 00:23:46] my organization and my previous job [inaudible 00:23:50] my organization at my current job, because again, just showing value. I think this will really up our game to our clients, and so far that has proven to be accurate. So the things I’ll say is in just general sense, I think Figma adds an ability to customize your visualization in the sense of whether it be, you know, clearly it’s more about adding images to a visualization, but then you’re kind of, you don’t have something like an Illustrator background, which is obviously the next tier up for a [inaudible 00:24:26] being able to design, although those who are using Illustrator are using it for a lot of other different purposes. So yeah, you can create icons, you can create background images, you can create titles, anything that just might make your visualization better, you can definitely do in Figma. But the real I think value beyond just some of that enhancing of visualization through visual images or what have you, is we use it a lot for prototyping. And so, I can actually create an entire dashboard in Figma without having data. So the benefit is when we’re working with clients, and particularly, pretty large scale projects, we could spend months trying to make kind of this “low fidelity” though it ends up being pretty high fidelity, because [inaudible 00:25:21] pretty nice in Figma. But you can make this whole dashboard and hook it up with actual interactivity. And so, you can play through this for a client and say, hey, look, this is what landing page is going to look like, you click here, you can go to this report, you hover over this, here’s an example of a tool tip, you click this, you’ll go to this report, it’ll filter here, like, all this stuff, and then a client can really understand what the end product is going to look like. But they can also make comments and say no, I don’t like that, move that here, change this color, whatever, from like high things to wrong metric to really detailed stuff, like I said, wrong color, that is way easier to fix and modify on the fly or just iterate, than when you’re actually working with real data, and you have to change calculations or change through whole worksheets, like, that’s a pain. So I think it adds a lot of value to being able to show proof of concept to a client, and it’s really easy to use. So that’s the two ways I use as images enhancing my visualization icons, but also this prototyping aspect, which [inaudible 00:26:29]
JS: So you’re literally drawing out and, in some cases, drawing out the dashboard with shapes and just sort of bar chart, you know, rectangles as bars before having to actually go to Tableau and build that thing out.
LB: And designing it to their specifications of, I’ll put in their logo, and I will make up, I’ll draw a little example filter, like, it’ll look just like Tableau, but I’m doing it in Figma. And so, it’s a pretty cool tool with how easy it is to use, I found. I think the learning curve is pretty well, like, it’s pretty easy to get the hang of, which I think adds a lot of value. And yeah, like I said, even if we’re not doing a prototyping thing, I’ve used it just to design like a landing page, because it’d be much – really slick in Figma, and then just add the navigation buttons in Tableau. But then they have something that looks really slick when they enter their dashboard, and the rest of it might be completely done in Tableau without any additional outside images [inaudible 00:27:35] but sometimes it’s a little, adding a little pizzazz, you can do in Figma.
JS: Yeah, that’s great. That’s great to know. And I’ll put a link to the Figma tool on the show notes so people can check it out. Like I said, I have a few designer friends who really like it I think there’s this, a lot of these newer tools seem to be sort of democratizing design in a way, which I’m sure, some graphic designers don’t like, and I’m sure others do, I mean, it’s a double edged sword in some ways. But yeah, being able to do that in sort of a digital sketching way sounds like it can be really valuable.
LB: I was never really good at sketching with my hand for whatever reason, so, I found that easier. Plus you can actually share it, so you can collaborate, which is cool, because then my colleagues can go in, they can see what I’ve done, we can see each other’s work, which you can’t unfortunately, unless you’ve Tableau’s server, which we don’t as a client or, as a consultant, because the clients have it. I don’t always see my colleague’s work unless they’re showing it or I’m digging around to look at their dashboards. It’s a nice way to see their design thinking, and what they’re building in Tableau kind of right there too.
JS: Right. Very cool. Well, I think the moral of the story from today is, if someone wants to figure out what new tool they should buy, they should just hire you, and then, at some point, you’ll be like, hey, we should get blah, blah, blah, and there you go.
LB: Right. [inaudible 00:29:01]
JS: Yeah. Lindsay, thanks so much. It was great chatting with you. I love hearing these stories of just like, I’m just going to do this thing better, and then just like be successful at it, it’s just a great story. So thanks so much for coming on the show, it was great chatting.
LB: Yeah, you’re welcome, Jon, thanks.
Thanks for everyone for tuning in to this week’s episode of the show. If you’d like to learn more about Lindsay’s work or any of the projects that we mentioned during our discussion, head over to the show notes, you can check out all the links. If you’d like to support the show, please share it on iTunes, Stitcher, Spotify, YouTube, or wherever you watch your podcasts. And if you’d like to be a financial supporter, please consider going over to our PayPal page or to our Patreon page, so that you can help me support all the folks that helped bring the show audio editing, transcription, design, promotion, all the stuff, that’s we need to bring the show together. So until next time, this has been the PolicyViz podcast. Thanks so much for listening.
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