Deep and Wide

Like many of you, I grew up attending Sunday school. One of my memories of that experience involves a song that was a favorite among us kids: “Deep and Wide.” It consists of only a few words, sung over and over:

Deep and wide, deep and wide,
There’s a fountain flowing deep and wide.

What we loved about the song was not the words, which we didn’t understand (I still don’t), but the hand motions that went with them. For “deep,” we would hold our arms out in front of us with one hand extended high and the other low. For “wide,” we would extend our arms to the sides as far as we could reach, hoping to smack the kids to our left and right. That joke never got old.

These words came flooding back into my memory today as I was thinking about the need in data sensemaking to dig deep into data but also to explore data broadly. Deep and wide, focus and context, detail and summary, trees and forest are all expressions that capture these two fundamental perspectives from which we should view our data if we wish to understand it. Errors are routinely made when we dig into a specific issue and form judgments without understanding it in context. Exploring data from every possible angle provides the context that’s necessary to understand the details. It keeps us from getting lost among the trees, wandering from one false conclusion to another, fools rushing in and rushing out, never really knowing where we’ve been.

Take care,


4 Comments on “Deep and Wide”

By Marty Gierke. July 26th, 2016 at 8:32 am

Nice throwback Steve, but what you do for us is not only deep & wide, it’s downright radiant. Which reminds me of Vacation Bible School (three words that spell misery to a ten year old) and “This little light of mine”!

Let it shine Steve, let it shine!

By kris erickson. August 1st, 2016 at 12:01 pm


If we imagine God as having a two-dimensional time, then He could be able to spend His times simultaneously being both wide and deep on an issue. But as we are mere mortals and must choose deep or wide for a unit of time, I am wondering if from a data-presentation standpoint, if you know of any guidelines to pursue per audience?

For example, suppose ‘Wide’ is a summary of data with certain categorical elements. So Wide#1 is Geographic hierarchy, and Wide#2 is Product Hierarchy, etc. etc. And ‘Deep’ are all dives within that hierarchy.

So a Wide#1-Wide#2-Wide#3-etc. summary may be more helpful for a CEO.
Wide#1-Deep-Deep-Deep would be useful for a store manager
Wide#2-Deep-Deep-Deep for a Product manager.

And a freeform path for analysts?

Should we ever start a presentation ‘in-the-deep’ so to speak?

By kris erickson. August 1st, 2016 at 12:24 pm

As a follow up, is there any research showing a difference in outcome when the same facts are presented in a
Deepest – Deep – Wide – Widest slide format
vs a
Widest – Wide – Deep – Deepest one?

Perhaps we could call it Mountain-to-Molehill or Molehill-to-Mountain research?

By Stephen Few. August 1st, 2016 at 12:38 pm


You’re having fun with this, aren’t you? Although I wrote exclusively about the need for both wide and deep data exploration and analysis, it is also useful, as you suggest, to consider this when presenting findings to others. I’m not aware of any research that’s been done to investigate the merits of various approaches. What I can say, however, is that you should present your findings in a way that takes your sudience’s needs and knowledge into account. For instance, if your primary objective is to report a deep finding to someone who already understands the data broadly, you might not need to provide breadth as context for the deep finding. I’ve observed, however, that just as many data analysts–especially those who are not highly trained–tend to explore the depths without first exploring data broadly, many data consumers also tend to focus on details without understanding the broader context. For this reason, it is often useful to provide relevant context for the details that you present. This is a good practice that is seldom considered. Whether you begin with breadth and then drill into the details or begin with the details and then step back to put them into context probably matters little.