Category Archives: Visualization

Recommended reading for December

Recommended reading

December is always an interesting month. Analysts, software companies and journalists post a ton of predictions, reviews and opinions to celebrate the start of the new year. 2012 is not different. Here are a a few posts that I highly recommend reading.

Most influential visualizations

Tableau Software without a doubt knows a lot about data visualization techniques. That’s why I happily viewed one of their new presentations out on Slideshare. It’s called ‘The 5 most influential data visualizations of all time”. Some of the featured visualizations have been discussed by Stephen Few and Edward Tufte, but it’s well worth spending a few minutes reviewing and thinking about how they changed the course of time.

The statisticians at Fox News

Are you ready for some hilarious reading? Well, here it is. The good folks over at the Simply Statistics blog compiled a number of data visualizations that appeared on Fox News (don’t worry – this is NOT about politics). Most of the featured charts are flawed from a technical point of view, but it turns out that they do an excellent job of communicating the intended message (which can be very different from what the actual data says….). Read with a smile but don’t loose focus on the idea that there is an important message! Most of us strive to produce visualizations, dashboards and reports to provide an accurate portrait of reality. But we can also twist this around and do the opposite: confuse and mislead. You might also want to take a quick look at the comment section of that blog entry. That’s where the post starts getting political.

Simply statistics

One of the charts that is being discussed.

Nucleus Top Ten Predictions for 2013

Nucleus is one of those research houses that produces very interesting reports. I don’t always agree with the stuff that they write, but it is certainly amongst the most tangible in the industry. Their 2013 predictions don’t disappoint. And guess what – BI is on top of the list. The remaining predictions represent a mixture of different trends – most of which affect analytics to a certain degree. In any case, the free report is well worth a five minute investment. One of my favorite statements is: “It’s time to make sure HP has signed its organ donor card.” You can download the free report from the Nucleus website.

Nucleus predictions 2013

 

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Inspiration from Stephen Few

Greetings from San Francisco. I am back here to attend Osisoft’s vCampus developer conference. The conference kicked off with a true highlight: Stephen Few delivered one of the keynote presentations. Hopefully, all of you know Stephen and the awesome work he has done over the past years. Today’s presentation was content-rich and also very entertaining. There were a lot of smiling faces in the audience. I will write up a short summary of his messages over the weekend and share it on this blog.

Is this the information age?

Stephen Few started his presentation with a strong statement: We do not live in the information age…..yet. Instead, many of us are drowning in data and we struggle with making sense of the data. Part of the issue is that we are lacking ‘data-sensemaking’ skills. To highlight this point, Stephen Few showed a video. I had never seen it before. It’s funny but there is a strong message behind it: we do not understand how to deliver information properly.

Those concentric circles

Does your organization have a ‘concentric circle’ problem? I certainly know a lot of them. It’s time to change that. Take some time to evaluate whether your reports and dashboards are able to deliver real information.

Concentric circles

“Concentric circles” in the corporate world

 

Check back here in the next few days for a summary of Stephen Few’s presentation.

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A few thoughts about gauge charts

Gauge charts

A few days ago, I had a discussion about gauge charts. A colleague and I had reviewed a collection of operational dashboards. Some of them contained large sets of gauge charts. Those dashboards were the most ineffective. At the risk of repeating myself, here are some thoughts about gauge charts.

  • Gauge charts are not necessarily very effective at communicating information. Other chart types such as bar or bullet graphs are usually easier to read.
  • Gauge charts waste a lot of space. Dashboards should not require a user to scroll through its content. That would require them to use more working memory than we have. We therefore need to utilize the limited space we have in the most effective manner. Given the fact the gauges are not superior to other charts, why waste so much space.

Take a look at this example. Three of those bar charts fit into the space that is occupied by the gauge. Is the gauge more effective than the bar? I don’t think so. (By the way, the yellow lines indicate the range of the value.)

gauge chart

Two charts. Both convey the same information. Which one do you prefer?

Why then?

Most analytics professionals would probably agree with me that gauges are not that great. But why do we see them in so many dashboards then? I think the answer is pretty simple: People want to see them! The general level of knowledge about data visualization is still relatively low. Managers are therefore inclined to pick the chart types that look cool. Unfortunately, too many analytics professionals still shy away from pushing back on those requirements or they also lack knowledge. The lack of knowledge is also responsible that most software vendors feature gauges in their marketing materials (customers are asking for them).

Education

It’s up to us analytics professionals to educate business users about gauge charts. Let’s start that process today! Also, look at your dashboards. Where do you have the ability to clean them up?

 

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5 lessons for using dashboard colors appropriately – Part 2

Selecting dashboard colors

Last week, I wrote about the role of colors in photographs. A lot of the insights apply to the design of solid management dashboards and reports. Color choice does make a huge difference. So, let’s apply the ideas from the prior post and apply them to your performance dashboards, charts and reports:

Lesson 1 – Do we need colour?

Colors are nice. But do we really need them all the time? Many photographs are even more powerful in black and white. The lack of colors helps with accentuating the important things. Why not apply this to our dashboards and reports? Take a look at the example below. It works quite well without colors. (Keep in mind that color blind people would prefer this version.)

Cognos 10 Dashboard

Simple, concise, focused, uncluttered….I love this Cognos 10 sales dashboard

Lesson 2 – Avoid unintended messaging

Colors do send a signal. Red, for example, indicates something powerful or a potential danger. However, too many dashboards are designed without this basic idea in mind. Colors are often applied carelessly.  Take a look at the example below. I showed this basic chart to several controllers. Guess what they said: “Something must be wrong with the Northern region.” The red bars seem to indicate that there is something wrong here (red). And wait…there is also some good news (green).

Is there something wrong with the North?

If we apply lesson 1, we get the following chart. The new version is a lot easier to digest and it does not send signals that it shouldn’t.

No, just the usual revenue reporting.

So, make sure to use colors with the right intent. Reserve colors like red, green and yellow to indicate important items.

LESSON 3 – USE PALETTES

A dashboard or a report should be pleasing to the eye. People don’t like working with ugly things. Design matters. If you want to use colors, think about using pre-configured color palettes. Most BI packages have a bunch of pre-configured options (heck…we can even use the super-ugly Excel 97 scheme).  That is usually better than creating your own color scheme. You might want to stay away from some of the brighter options. These are quite distracting.

A few Cognos 10 palettes

LESSON 4 – AVOID SENSORY OVERLOAD

Too much color is not good. Look at this simple example below. Everything is color-coded. This is too much. I personally find it very hard to look at these types of tables.

Colorful dashboard

We can reduce the colors to deliver a better experience. Let’s just highlight those items that require our attention. Much better, huh? Keep in mind – this is just a simple example. Imagine a larger color-explosion dashboard. Not pretty. When designing a report or dashboard we should think about the rule ‘Less is more’.

Color coded table

LESSON 5 – People do like colors

Much has been written about the use of colors in dashboards. Many people argue that the simple black and white approach is the most effective one (see the example above). I personally like that style as it helps me focus on the content. However, experience has shown that inexperienced business users do not necessarily go for that style. I have worked with various executives who demanded ‘something more colorful’. From a change management perspective, I am therefore no longer opposed to using color carefully in those cases. But that does not mean we should go crazy. Over time, people typically learn to appreciate the simpler style.

Cognos Active Report Dashboard

Your reports and dashboards

Pay attention to colors! It makes a big difference. It’s not all that difficult.So, why don’t you look at some of your reports and dashboard today. Assess whether the color choices are good. Have fun!

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Dashboard color – Yes, it does matter! The basics – Part 1

 

Dashboard color?

Have you ever paid much attention to dashboard color and its effect on people? Colors are very powerful but very few of us actively leverage that to create awesome performance dashboards and reports. Just take a look at some examples that are floating around many organizations. Screens often induce headaches and are more colorful than a David Hockney painting. The result? Business people either do not effectively find the information that they need or they simply disregard an object because it looks terrible. Let’s face it – Dashboard color does matter!A bad dashboard!

Lessons from photography

Business analytics professionals need to have a basic understanding of colors. At a very minimum, we all need to be aware of the fact that dashboard color plays a huge role in user acceptance. Honestly, I never paid much attention to this until I got serious about photography. To shoot better photographs you need to understand colors and their effect on eyes and mind. The purpose of this post is to share some of the basic ideas. The next post will apply these basics to the design of Business Analytics applications.

Powerful colors

What does color do? At the most basic level, it can send powerful signals. Think about the colors of a traffic light: Red means stop. Red indicates danger but also power (look at some of the world’s largest brands….they use red). Yellow is vigorous and insistent. Green means go. Green is also positive. Look at the photos below:

RED – Is somebody in trouble?

The warning sign above sends an aggressive and strong signal. Compare this to the photo below. Isn’t that positive?

GREEN – This is relaxing…almost Zen

MIXING COLORS But colors usually do not come isolated from each other. They go together. Some colors create harmony. Other combinations simply hurt. Others create a nice contrast. We should therefore be very careful about choosing the right colors. To understand how this works, look at the classic color wheel below. Basically all colors can be mixed through these six elements:

The famous color wheel

When you pick colors from opposing sides, you can create nice contrast (e.g. Blue and Yellow, Red and Cyan). Contrast makes things stand out. On the other hand, you could also create harmony by choosing colors that are right next to each other on the color wheel (Yellow-Green; Yellow-Red). See the examples below:

Harmony…..

Mixing colors therefore is not trivial. A little knowledge of the color wheel can help you achieve nice effects. Use the color wheel to your advantage! NO COLOR AT ALL Sometimes we don’t need colors at all. There are cases when a black and white photo works better. The lack of color allows us to bring out the nuances and it helps to focus on the important things. Take a look at the example below. The colors in the first photo do not really add a lot of value. Actually, they make the photo look dull and boring. The castle itself looks dull, too.

Dull. Simply dull.

Now look at the same photo as a black and white: Suddenly the amazing structure of the castle really stands out. The dull sky is now adding value as well. We can see the rain coming down and it really adds to the atmosphere.

Hey…I want to go there and see that castle!

Dashboard color

So much for the basics. But what about Business Analytics? Stay tuned for some lessons next week. That post will apply these basic insights to our management dashboards and reports. In the meantime, if you have a chance pay attention to colors over the next few days.

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How to confuse and distract your audience with poor visualizations

Excuse me?

We often talk about how to best visualize data so that the audience can quickly discover the most important information in often complex data sets. But we cannot forget that it is also possible to achieve exactly the opposite effect: You can also leverage visualizations to distract and confuse people. As a matter of fact, it is possible to create visuals that completely hide important messages. Why would you do that? I guess if you want to hide bad news….right?

A bad example

The other day I received the 2011 spending report of the town that I live in. The text was quite dense and it included a ton of public sector terms that I did not understand. The core of the report, however, was centered around a graphic that outlines the detailed spending. Without further due, here it is.

Poor visualization

What’s wrong with this chart? Boy….pretty much everything: Extreme 3D, poor font choice (I can’t read it…), technical language and the colors… The sum of the parts is also not correct (as compared to the narrative). Percentages are not correct either (poor rounding practices). To be honest with you – when I saw this report I immediately got the impression that our town hall is trying to hide something. After some analysis I am still confused and not quite sure what to think about this.

To be fair, I believe that our mayor and his team are highly qualified. His approval ratings are extremely high for good reason. But this sort of communication does leave a bad taste in my mouth. It just makes you wonder….

A better approach

3D pie charts are never a good choice. The data above is quite simple and one could either leverage a standard sorted bar graph, a stacked bar chart or a waterfall graph. Really depends on your own personal preference. Here is an example:

Stacked Bar Chart

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An Easter Egg hunt with three charts

It’s that time of the year. Millions of kids are excited about hunting for Easter Eggs. Why not do the same here on the blog? Below are three charts. All of them are colored according to the season. But there are some problems with each one of the charts. Can spot them? Scroll down to see some comments….

Chart 1 – The Lollipop of Products

The Lollipop - Makes sense?

Chart 2 – The Pyramid of Deception

Pyramid Chart

The Pyramid - Admired for its shape and power

Chart 3 – Walk that line

Wrong Line Chart

The trend is your friend? Or maybe not?

Continue reading

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Why stacked line charts are useful

Stacked line charts

Stacked line charts are a great and yet simple tool. Here is why. We often run into a situation where we need to analyze data with different units of measure. Think about  a classic but yet simple situation: Vital company data such as revenue, margin % and expenses is used to obtain insights about the past and current performance . One could dismiss this as an easy task and simply review a standard table. But raw data is really tough to analyze. Detecting trends and patterns quickly is almost impossible. Especially with regular data sets that span multiple organizational units

Analysis

Raw data is hard to analyze. Even simple data sets as this one here.

The other option would be to stick the data into a traditional line chart. But this won’t work in many cases for two obvious reasons:

  • The units of measure are different (Revenue ($), Margin (%), Headcount (#), Volume (#), etc..)
  • The units of measure have large differences (example: Revenue is measured in millions, travel cost in thousands)

Both cases result in a pretty much useless chart. You can see a fine example right below:

bad line chart

An almost useless chart - What are the margins again?

For data sets containing just two different units of measure, we could alternatively consider a dual axis graph. But I personally find them distracting and many casual users get confused. This is where stacked line charts come in handy.

The power of stacked line charts

Stacked line charts are basically a bunch of line charts that we stack. Why is that useful? Well, take a look:

Stacked line chart

A stacked line chart - A better option

The stacked line charts allows us to easily identify and compare the trends and patterns in our data. Using this stack is fairly easy. We just have to keep in mind that the units of measure or the scale is different in each one of the line charts. But that should be obvious.

Your analysis

Generating these stacked line charts is really easy with personal analytics tools like Cognos Insight. Spreadsheets typically required us to generate various different charts and to align them manually.

If you haven’t use them before, get started today! Stacked line charts are very powerful, yet easy to use.

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Watch that chart aspect ratio!

The chart aspect ratio

The other day I reviewed a dashboard. It looked great. But there was a chart on the bottom that just did not make any sense. It was way too long and stretched out. As a result, it was very difficult to use it appropriately. And that reminded me: We have to watch out for the chart aspect ratio.

The basic idea

Wikipedia defines the aspect ratio as follows: “The aspect ratio of an image describes the proportional relationship between its width and its height.” It’s as simple as that. We get confronted with the aspect ration when we purchase a TV or computer monitor or when we work with photographs. Does the aspect ratio matter? Oh, yeah it does! Take a look at the two photographs below. The first one uses the common HD 16:9 ratio. I cropped the second one down to a square format (1:1). Do you see the difference in the overall impression of the photo?

Square Aspect Ratio

16:9 (HD) Aspect Ratio: Can you feel the wide and open ocean?

16:9 Aspect Ratio

Square Aspect Ratio: Not that great. The boat has too much visual weight and the ocean does not seem vast and wide.

 Your charts

The aspect ratio does matter for charts as well. We have to watch out for that when we create reports and dashboards or when we perform ad-hoc analysis. Not every chart aspect ratio works equally well. Take a look at the two examples below. Both of these charts have problems:

It is difficult to make sense of the data. It is too flat.

Chart Aspect Ratio

The peaks are very pronounced.

The first chart is definitely too flat – it is very difficult to analyze it. The second one is probably a bit too dense. The peaks are extremely pronounced and it would be easy to come to wrong conclusions.

A better approach

What is the idea aspect ratio then? Hard to say. It is typically a good idea to use a ratio that is wider than it is tall (2:1 or something like that). But it depends on what you want to show. From my point of view, it makes sense to experiment a little bit. I have noticed that some visualization experts have issues advice but I have found it to be very academic and hard to implement. To stick with the example from above, I did re-size the graph a bit and finally settled on this chart aspect ratio:

Better Aspect Ratio

This aspect ratio seems to work best for this data

Your dashboards & reports

Pay attention to the chart aspect ratio. Only because there is some space left in a dashboard does not mean we can or should stick a certain graph in there. The chart aspect ratio does matter quite a bit as we have just seen in these simple examples. Also, try experimenting with different chart aspect ratios when you perform analysis. Resizing charts with personal analytics tools such as Cognos Insight is really simple.

 

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Freedom to think?

Change that viewpoint

Last summer I participated in a Bavarian wedding.

As a photographer I was really excited to see three traditional alphorn players. The early results looked good on the camera monitor (left photo). At that point I was tempted to pack up and celebrate with my friends. But I resisted and began to experiment with different viewpoints. The final shot ended up as my personal favorite (photograph on the right). Same scene, different perspective. Changing viewpoints paid off.

Alphorn

Business Analytics and Viewpoints

Changing our viewpoint is especially critical for Business Analytics. Continue reading

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