Interview: Trina Chiasson, data designer and “big dataviz nerd”

"My job is awesome"

Interviewing women with geeky, inspiring jobs is one of our favourite things to do, so we jumped at the chance to chat to Trina Chiasson, designer of Tableau’s Vizable app for beautiful data visualisation.

In addition to turning dull spreadsheets into stunning graphics, Trina also finished a 4-year Economics BA in half that time, won Best Bootstrap Company at SXSW for her firm Infoactive, and recently cycled a 4,000 mile road trip. We feel tired just writing that!

Here’s what happened when we caught up with her.

Hi Trina! Please introduce yourself.

Sure thing!

Well, officially I’m a Senior Product Manager at Tableau Software, where I work on a new iPad application called Vizable. Before Tableau, I was the CEO and co-founder of Infoactive — a web app for making interactive infographics and data visualisations. Infoactive was Tableau’s first acquisition, and we joined forces at the beginning of August. I was also recently a data visualisation research fellow at the Reynolds Journalism Institute, where I co-organised a global open source e-book project called “Data + Design.” I still work on that project here and there in my free time.

TL;DR – I’m a big dataviz nerd.

Can you tell us a bit about what your job involves?

My job is awesome. I’m in mobile development, where I get to play with data and technology every day. I work on a team that’s inventing new ways to help people see and understand data.

We’re all passionate about what we do, and in a sense Vizable is a bit like a startup within Tableau. Startups, of course, move rapidly through different product stages and they have constantly shifting needs, so team members need to adjust accordingly. My role is a bit like that. On some days I’m working on our communication strategy; on other days I’m collecting user feedback or thinking about our product roadmap. On all days, I’m having a blast working toward our shared vision.

Tell us more about Vizable – how did it come about? What kinds of people find it useful, and what for?

Vizable was built around a situational context: when you have a table of data and a tablet, how do you see and understand your data? With 1.5 million apps in the app store, we noticed that there wasn’t an app that let us seamlessly analyse data on an iPad. So we thought, “What would happen if we built a brand new product today, designed for a touchscreen device? How would we want to analyse data in a touch-first environment?”

Vizable

We gathered team members with unique backgrounds in storytelling, animation, and technology. For example, some of the folks on our team previously worked at Pixar and Lucasfilm. Based on wisdom we had acquired from years of building Tableau, we explored new concepts in design and analysis. We launched Vizable 1.0 last month at the Tableau Conference in Las Vegas.

Since Vizable is based around a situation rather than a specific audience, we see many different types of people using it — from coffee shop owners with Square data, to self-quantified geeks, to business executives in airports who have spreadsheet email attachments that they want to analyse.

Lots of people need to turn mundane information into something engaging for their jobs – what kinds of techniques do you find useful for seeing the interesting side of numbers and facts?

Data can feel really impersonal at times. People engage with data when they feel a personal connection to it. One of my colleagues likens exploring someone else’s data to viewing someone else’s vacation photos. Sure, you might pretend to be interested, but seeing yourself in the data generates a very different level of interest.

One of my favorite data visualizations was made by the New York Times back in 2009. It’s called “The Jobless Rate for People Like You.” It actually shows “US Unemployment Rates Over Time” and NYT easily could have given it that name.

But they didn’t. They specifically called out “People Like You” and made it easy to explore the data by race, gender, age, and education level. When a person lands on that page, they immediately click the appropriate buttons to see their demographic. They can then compare their own personal experience to the trends that they see in the data.

Giving people the ability to see themselves in data is a powerful form of engagement.

What other careers did you consider? How and why did you go for this one?

Technology is appealing to me because it’s creative, challenging, and involves a certain level of rebelliousness — or at least a willingness to take risks, step out of your comfort zone, and explore unique approaches to solving problems.

I’m interested in a lot of things and I view my career as a meandering path rather than a fixed trajectory. I’m not dedicated to mastery in a particular subject. Learning and growing are big motivating factors for me, and the field of data/tech offers a lot of room for the type of growth that I crave.

It’s hard to say what career interests I’ll have in the future, but I’m very happy with my choice at the moment.

You completed your four-year Economics BA in just two years – what are your best productivity tips?

Ha! I should write a short book on how I did that because I’m quite proud of my education hacking. There was a strategic and well-thought-out methodology behind it.

In my first year of college, I began studying Economics and decided to do a cost-benefit analysis of my education. I looked at the cash output for tuition, the opportunity cost of my time, and the relative benefits of achieving certain academic milestones.

I did a lot of research and discovered that I could take specific actions to drastically reduce the time required to complete my degree while lowering my tuition costs and boosting my GPA. It was a bit like putting a complex puzzle together. I figured out what puzzle pieces I had to work with and then tried to assemble them in the most efficient way.

Part of it involved personal productivity tricks such as self-discipline, but most of the efficiency gains came from figuring out ways to rearrange the system itself. It also required giving up perfectionism (at least temporarily). I created personal success metrics that quantified my goals at each step. Performance above and beyond my stated goals was wasted energy — I could move faster by using that extra energy to achieve the next step.

Mostly, I just thought it was fun to reinvent the university education process. When you’re excited about a project, it’s easier to be productive.

What do you do when you’re not working?

I’m a big fan of running, biking, and playing outside. I used to juggle a lot, and while I don’t allocate much time to it these days, it’s still fun to see a juggler at a party or a park and then pass clubs together. It happens more often than you’d expect.

I also love reading long form creative nonfiction about arcane topics. I collect some of my favorites here (I know, I’m a nerd).

If you could give your younger self some advice, what would you say?

Spend more time learning about computer science and statistics. These subjects are fascinating and incredibly valuable in today’s economic landscape.

Don’t downplay the importance of networking. Sure, it can be annoying sometimes and it’s challenging to do it right. It does pay off, often in unexpected and magical ways.

This probably doubles as advice for my future self.

What are your must-have apps and gadgets? How do they make your life easier?

My gadgets are fairly simple and straightforward. 95% of my gadget usage revolves around my Mac Stack – an iPhone, iPad, and MacBook Pro.

There are a few apps that are central to my day-to-day workflow. Excellent design is important to me. Since I work in software, I love and appreciate well-designed applications. We’re all influenced by the patterns and designs that we see on a day-to-day basis; I want to be influenced by the best of the best.

TextExpander is awesome. It lets me create simple text shortcuts or program more sophisticated ones. I use it for phone numbers that I can never remember (e.g. ;work-phone is one shortcut), addresses, terminal commands, and commonly used snippets, such as the short bio I use for speaking engagements. One cool feature is that it automatically helps me identify commonly used snippets and offers to create shortcuts for me. It notices when I manually type out an existing snippet, and then it reminds me that I should save time by using the shortcut. I feel like this app watches out for my best interests.

Omnifocus is another one that I use every day. It’s one of the more popular GTD productivity tools. It’s clean, powerful, customisable, and I appreciate the keyboard shortcuts. It’s a rock solid, well-designed app that helps me stay focused and on top of my game.

Lately I’ve also fallen in love with Ulysses. I was looking for an alternative to Evernote for a long time. Evernote is probably great for a lot of people, but I’ve been craving a writing and note-taking tool that’s ruthlessly clean and simple. I don’t need a lot of bells and whistles. The writing experience with Ulysses is just so lovely — it’s the typing equivalent of a warm cup of tea. The only big downside is that they don’t have an iPhone app yet. I’m rooting for them, though.

What are you most excited about at the moment? (In terms of your career, technology, the future – whatever’s got you fired up).

I’m in an exciting place right now. I get to work with an awesome team to collaboratively invent the next phase of a new product. I’m stoked to see how the product life-cycle will evolve at a bigger company versus my small startup, and learn how a different team approaches similar challenges.

As a society, we’re in an exciting place regarding data in a more general sense. Our ability to collect, store, process, and understand data is growing at an incredibly fast pace. It’s so cool to be part of that wave and I can’t wait to see how it evolves over the next several years.


Main image: Vizable

Holly Brockwell
About Holly Brockwell 291 Articles
Tech addict Holly founded Gadgette in 2015, and won Woman of the Year for it. She's firmly #TeamAndroid, has ambitions to become a robot, and beat all other Hollies to her awesome Twitter handle.