What photography taught me about dashboards


Photography and dashboards? Huh? Fire and Ice?

Photography is a big and important hobby of mine. And it is a tough hobby. There is a lot to learn and the opportunity to make mistakes (read: create photographs that really suck) is huge. It starts with understanding your camera, deciphering basics like Aperture, Shutter Speed and ISO. But the hardest thing for me is photographic composition. Composition focuses on how we design a photograph. Over the past few years, I have studied many master photographers and read a bunch of books trying to educate myself and to improve my pictures (a tough mission as my artistic brain is completely underdeveloped). A few weeks ago, I realized that photographic composition can teach us a few things about Dashboard design. Dashboards should be highly visual after all and they need to convey information in a short-period of time.

  1. Less is more: Many successful pictures have been reduced to a bare minimum. Each element in the frame has a distinct purpose. You will hardly ever find a great photograph which contains empty coke bottles lying around for no purpose. It would create a distraction. By reducing the elements in the frame a photographer creates focus. The same is true for dashboards. We have so much information available. People therefore try to cram as much into a dashboard as they can. And we stick logos, banners etc in there along with messy charts and reports. But less is more. If we reduce the building blocks to a minimum, we can help managers focus on the important things.
  2. Arrange carefully: Successful photographs are able to convey a certain message. The message is crafted by arranging the elements in the frame in a certain way. In other words: we can’t just find a nice scene or object but we need to carefully consider where to place items. The same applies to dashboards. Stephen Few for example points out that we should place the most important block in the upper left corner. That’s where the Western world starts reading. That way we can ensure that managers focus on the most important element first. Also, we can employ different techniques to direct our eyes. (see some examples below).
  3. Choose colors wisely: Different colors communicate different things. Our eyes focus on bright elements before they refocus on darker elements for example. Red or bold elements alert the eye as opposed to darker colors or thinner elements. A great photograph therefore utilizes colors with purpose. Sometimes colors take away from the meaning of a photograph. Black & White would be the obvious choice in that case. When it comes to dashboards we should employ the same considerations. Colors and fonts should be used with careful consideration. Too many dashboards are colorful without a specific purpose and it confuses the message. “What should I look at? I can’t see the tree in the forest.” Careful color choice helps direct the attention to the important items. For example, you can highlight an exception in red. But color preference is also a personal choice.

Here is an example where we can see these principles at work:

The overall scene

The scene is quite busy. The yellow color is not really useful. Not a good photograph. Basically a typical snapshot.

This photo creates focus. There is only one element in the frame. Much better. But it is kind of boring.

This photo is much better. It is more dynamic. Same object, different placement. What a difference!

Yet another version. This photo simply works. It is dynamic and the object is placed in the right spot. Color is not needed in this case. The picture works as a black & white.

Here are some examples that highlight how these things apply to dashboard design. Consider each box as a representation of an object (chart, query, etc.). Look at the first really sloppy design attempt. Looks weird? Well, it does happen quite a bit. Take a look at this beautiful collection of crazy, busy dashboards collected and displayed by Hichert & Partner.

Performance Dashboard
Want some candy???

And now look at the following layouts below. They are simple. There is no added noise that distracts. Notice that the light blue matches the design of this blog……Notice how the careful placement of the boxes makes a difference. The lines indicate how a typical user walks through the content. Also, note how the use of color changes things.

Dashboard DesignNext time you develop a dashboard be careful with your design. It does make a huge difference. Just these three things alone can have a big impact on the effectiveness of your dashboard.

If you are interested in this topic, please get in touch with me. We will be running some workshops about this topic across Europe in Q1 & Q2. Also, I will create a few additional posts about enhancing your dashboards with great charts over the next few weeks. Make sure to come back here!

“What you communicate depends both on the blocks you select and on the ways you arrange them”,

Freeman Patterson, Master Photographer

 

Visualization of unstructured information

The other day, I attended a great exhibit that was put together by my friend Bernhard Lermann (@lermann) and his companion Jens Semjan. Their Munich exhibit called “The Eternal Timeline Show” is highly unusual, very entertaining and informative. Apart from educating me on a few things, the exhibit certainly triggered a lot of thinking around data visualization.

THE ETERNAL TIMELINE

Eternal Timelines

What is so special about this exhibit and what is the relationship to visualization? Very simple. Lermann & Semjan decided to visualize history. We have all read history books. Many of them are quite boring and lengthy. The two artists decided to take a different approach by creating visual timelines around certain topics. In the exhibit you can find a timeline for Apple, for example. Another timeline focuses on the history of networking. All this is displayed on long sheets of endless paper. The spectators are able to walk the timelines up and down. Apart from some classic history themes (epidemics, revolution, etc..) there are also some interesting newer topics such as tweets that led up to the revolution Egypt a few weeks ago.

ENGAGING VISUALS

The timelines represent an excellent example for visualizing unstructured information. What I found is that many people walked the timelines up and down. And many people showed a reaction: They stopped, they thought, they discussed. It was quite interesting to watch. But not surprising. We all know that pictures say more than words. Being able to physically walk the timelines spectators are getting engaged with history. They are also able to relate events (just move over to the left…). Last but not least, I found that I had absorbed a lot of knowledge within a very short period of time. Visuals do that for us. They help us make connections.

THE LESSON?

You Tube was here! The history of networking

Visuals are extremely helpful. They help us identify trends, see patterns and they sometimes connect with us on an emotional level. There is plenty of room for us to leverage this powerful tool in business. Let’s start visualizing our monthly variance reports. Let’s visualize the behavior of our customers. We can all save a lot of time and we can have more fun at work. There is ample of opportunity for us to visualize our data and information. This exhibit is a fine example of that. It inspired me and many other people. If you happen to be in Munich, make sure to stop by the exhibit or get in touch with the artists. Also, make sure to watch David McCandless’ presentation about data visualization at TED.

IBM Business Analytics at the Gartner BI Summit 2011

It’s that time of the year! The annual Gartner BI Summit is just around the corner. This year’s edition will take place from January 31st through February 1st at the Park Plaza Westminster Bridge in London.

IBM is one of the main sponsors for this event, and my team and I will be quite busy during those days. We have planned some great activities to connect with our customers, partners and friends. There will be a big booth at the conference where we can meet. Some of our most knowledgeable resources will there. We are really excited to show our Cognos 10 platform. Here is a quick pre-view of some IBM Cognos related activities that might be of interest for you:

Monday, January 31st:

  • 08:30 – 10:30: The traditional Gartner keynotes should not be missed.
  • 11:45 – 12:30: Panel discussion – Peter Griffiths, our VP for Business Analytics development will participate. I love those panel discussions
  • 12:45 – 13:45: ‘Preparing a BI Strategy’ workshop hosted by @tracyleeharris
  • 14:00 – 16:00: ‘Best Practices in Rolling Forecasts‘ workshop….hosted by me. This is a great workshop for all people interested in finance processes.
  • 16:15 – 17:15: ‘Demonstrating Value’ workshop hosted by @tracyleeharris

Tuesday, February 1st:

  • 10:30 – 11:15: ‘Navigating Politics & Culture’ workshop hosted by @tracyleeharris
  • 11:30 – 12:00: Our keynote ‘Smarter decisions, better results’. Leah Macmillan will be delivering this presentation and I have the honor to demo our cool Cognos 10 platform.
  • 12:00 – 13:00: ‘Organizing for Success & Building a BICC’ hosted by @tracyleeharris

I have pasted the detailed descriptions of the workshops on the bottom of this post. We have limited space in all of these. So, please visit us at the booth early enough to sign up.

You might have noticed that my colleague Tracy Harris will be quite busy at the conference. She actually released a neat book towards the end of 2010. We will have plenty of copies for you at our booth.  If you want, you can also download a copy for free before the conference. Tracy will be spending a lot of time at our booth….so get your questions ready!

That’s it for now. Looking forward to seeing everybody at the conference. Drop me a note if you want to meet.

Workshop Descriptions

Best Practices in Rolling Forecasts Workshop
This workshop is a highly practical one where our team will share key insights on designing, implementing and using rolling forecasts as part of a best practice performance management process. You will find out whether rolling forecasts are right for your organisation, what the best time horizon would be, and how rolling forecasts can alert you to emerging threats and opportunities.  Discuss the relevance of forecasting, review best practices for implementing a rolling forecast, and identify how you can improve the forecasting process

Demonstrating Value Workshop
What kind of ROI do organisations see from BI and PM deployments? How do I
demonstrate the value of my investment? In this session, learn about building your
value portfolio for a strategic BI and PM investment including demonstrating ROI,
justifying your strategy, demonstrating value and how to embrace, enhance and
extend your investments.

Navigating Politics and Culture Workshop
Having trouble extending your BI deployment? Gaining user adoption? Learn some of
the most common practices and pitfalls that organisations encounter as they
implement BI enterprise-wide. Find out how they gained executive buy-in, managed
change, gained adoption and showcased initiatives within their organisation. By
learning more about these pitfalls and how other organisations have overcome them,
you will be more prepared for success.

Organising for Success & Building a BI Center of Excellence Workshop
In order to be successful at a strategic business intelligence or performance
management initiative, you need to be properly organised to execute. Learn about
the value of a Business Intelligence Center of Excellence, and discuss functions and
structures of these organisations.

Preparing a Strategy Workshop
What are the sweet spots of information? What key elements do I need to consider
when building a strategy? What is my business alignment strategy, my organisational
and behavioural strategy and my technology strategy? In this workshop we will
discuss the key elements to consider when building a strategy and roadmap to help
your organisation become best-in-class using analytics.


The power of Data visualization

We all know that visual information display is more effective. But yet, we still create, run & analyze hundreds of thousands of flat reports. A survey from 2007 (CFO Executive Board) found that the average management report is 30-40 pages long and that it contains 12000 to 15000 data points. But only 5% of those are deemed to be important. The most obvious question that comes to mind is: How much time is wasted to go through this amount of data and turn this into real insights? Would it help to start using more powerful visuals to display the hidden meaning behind all those data?

Watch this inspiring and entertaining speech by author, journalist & visualization pioneer David McCandless. I will blog about some of his ideas and how they relate to business at a later point.