ReadWriteWeb had an interesting post about Best Tools for Visualization. While I found the post to be full of interesting information, there was an obvious omission that I feel compelled to point out. No visualization tool, regardless of how technically clever or unique it is, can take the place of clear thinking.
Visualization is a term whose meaning in popular culture is beginning to stray from its original intent. (Isn't that the fate of most words that become popular buzzwords?) In the pure sense, visualization is the visual expression of an idea. The information in that idea can take many forms. It can be literal, like a picture of an object, or it can become abstracted, such as images that convey emotion.
Most frequently, the term visualization describes visual representation of how informational elements are connected. In the offline world, this is usually called Information Design. Two main skills are required to make Visualization useful. First, the complexities of interrelated information must be untangled. The causes, effects, and connections must be clearly understood. The second step is to figure out how to represent this information visually so that it can be easily understood.
The upshot is that these tools can be helpful aids in visually representing information. It is up to the person who is trying to communicate their ideas to: a) understand what the information is, and how it is connected, and b) choose the right visualization tool to best communicate that information. No tool can do those two things for you.
These tools are very good at making cool images of information. Most people have a difficult time making compelling images, and they are often seduced into falling in love with these tools for the wrong reasons. Please do not fall into the trap of confusing the quality of the content with the quality of the image. Good Information Design will help to ease communication, and provide common understanding. If you are using one of these tools, and your discussions still keep spinning, go back to the drawing board and start clearing up your thinking. Then visualize it.