Tag Archives: business chart

What “Brain Rules” teaches us about Business Analytics

The other day I took some time to review a few chapters of John Medina’s excellent book ‘Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School‘. It is a great read. There are a lot of interesting stories and insights that apply to various different aspects of our lives. One chapter in particular is quite relevant for Business Analytics: Rule #10 – Vision trumps all other senses.

THE POWER OF VISION

Dashboard DesignAccording to Medina, our brains devote over half of their resources to vision. The nerves between our eyes and our brains are much more powerful than those of our other senses. As a result, pictures allow us to absorb information much quicker and the information also tends to be stickier in our brains. Medina says:”Put simply, the more visual the input becomes, the more likely it is to be recognized – and recalled”.

THE PROBLEM WITH TEXT

Text on the other hand is very inefficient. It takes us longer to recognize information and we are likely to retain less of it. Medina states that each letter is technically a separate picture. When we see words we see tons of little images and our brains have a harder time to process the information. George Bernhard Shaw once said “Words are only postage stamps delivering the object for you to unwrap.”

THE LESSON FOR BUSINESS ANALYTICS

Brain Rules

A picture says more than a thousand words

Most of this is common sense, but many of us still choose to ignore these facts. We create long reports with hundreds of columns and numbers. We spend hours analyzing these numbers. And we have a hard time recognizing the important patterns. If we want to follow Medina’s advice, we should visualize our data, instead. This not only speeds up our ability to recognize patterns and dependencies, but it should also help us with retaining the information. The old saying goes “A picture says more than a thousand words”, right?

AN EXPERIMENT

Dashboarding guru Stephen Few created a nice little experiment that shows how true and important this insight is. Take a look at the simple report below. It shows revenue numbers for two regions. Spend about 30 seconds to study the table. Then look away ask yourself what you saw.

What do you see here?

Most people are only able to recall three to four different things from the table. The bigger picture usually remains hidden for a while. Now, take a look at the chart below. This is the same data. What do you see now?

Same information...

Notice the difference? The chart is a lot easier to read and chances are that you are able to retain a lot more information.

THE SIMPLE LESSON

John Medina’s advice can be extremely valuable for all of us. We should strive to move away from pure number and text based reports. Instead we should visualize as much data as possible. But that requires us to spend some time to learn more about charting techniques. There are a lot of different options and not all of them are appropriate for any given set of data. You can find a bunch of valuable tips on this blog to get started. Also, utilize the appropriate Business Analytics platform. Cognos 10 offers over 160 differrent chart types, for example.

So, toss those tables and go visual. Inspect your current repository of reports and think about how you can improve in this area.

Listen to John Medina:

Professionals everywhere need to know about the incredible inefficiency of text-based information and the incredible effect of images.”

 

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Making data sing in presentations

The other day, I made a bold statement about presentations: many of them suck and they especially suck when it comes to presenting data. Real meaning is often hidden in complex and dense charts. The problem is sometimes amplified by poor communication skills.

PRESENTATIONS ARE DIFFERENT

There is a fundamental difference between sitting in your office analyzing data and sitting in a meeting listening to a presentation. The second setting requires a lot of focus. Listening can be really hard at times and it is easy to loose track when we drop our attention for a few seconds. And there is no rewind button. Every time a new slide comes up our attention shifts to that slide. Our brain tries to make sense of it. Following the speaker during that brief moment is tough. The more complex a slide the longer this moment lasts and the higher the probability that the audience gets lost. To ensure that our messages are understood, we have to be thoughtful about how we present our data. Here are a few ideas that you can use to make your data sing:

1. VISUALIZE

One of the basic things I recommend is to utilize charts for presentation slides whenever we can. Reviewing raw data in a presentation setting is extremely difficult. We should not have to stare at a projector screen to make sense of data. It takes away too much focus.
Sure, there might be cases when people need to see that raw data but we can always share printed documents as backup materials if necessary.  Make it simple for your listeners and visualize the data. Look at the two contrasting examples below: it takes a while to consume the table, but the line chart immediately makes sense. Even on first sight.

The table above is inefficient. The chart works much better with presentation slides

2. CHART TYPES

Make sure to carefully select your charts, though. Not every visualization lends itself to delivering a crisp message. Once again, the things that may work for us at our desk do not necessarily have to work when we follow a presentation. The rule of thumb is to choose the chart that can most easily be understood. That might sometimes require us to drop some information. Once again: we can always supplement our slide show with backup materials. If you have difficulties selecting the right type, take a look at some advice on this site.

What happened to our revenue? This is too busy & difficult for a slide

Revenue decreased in a dramatic way. Although it is extremely colorful, this chart is a lot easier to understand.

3. SIMPLIFY

But even charts can either be too complex or we load them up with too much noise: 3D, logos, gridlines, pictures and unwise choice of colors. As a result, viewers and listeners have a hard time understanding. Presentation guru and author Garr Reynolds calls for a maximization of the signal to noise ratio: eleminate everything that could stand in the way (noise) of delivering our message (signal). Take a look at the example below. There is too much going on and our eyes tend to jump around.

Too much noise

Let’s reduce the noise and focus on the just the signal (below). Isn’t this much better?

Same date, less noise: much better!

4. MAKE IT EASY

We should eliminate everything that stands in the way of being understood by the audience. In other words, we should make it as easy as possible for them to quickly catch the important items. We can do this by amplifying the signal. Take a look at the slide above: the headline features the key message. Also, note how the 2009 bar in the prior chart immediately pops out: This must be the year our CEO left! I can see it immediately. A simple but effective trick.

5. CREATE FOCUS

Too many slides are way too busy and people easily loose attention. My basic rule is that we should only deliver one message per slide. Don’t try to cram everything into a single slide. Remember: slides are cheap! Nobody is forcing you to deliver your message in less than ten slides. It’s up to you to decide. Allow the audience to absorb the information and then move on with your story. A simple and single message on each slide ensures that the attention is quickly refocused on you – the presenter.

There is a lot going on here. But what is this all about?

The slide above is way too busy. We jump around and try to figure things out. But let’s apply the rules and also create focus on a single message that we will spread across two slides:

Slide 1: Aha! Region 2 is in a difficult situation....

Slide 2: ..only two solid customers (A & B)...the story is obvious now.

NEXT STEPS

Try to incorporate these tips into your next presentation. They will make a big difference. And it does not have to be complicated. Applying these things will help you make meetings more effective. And by doing that you can make a big contribution towards making sure that the investment in Business Analytics does not go down the drain when we put our information on slides. We owe it to ourselves and to our colleagues.

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Charts? Yes, I know….

Dashboarding….Part 2.

Yes, we do know that we shouldn’t eat those chips. Yes, we do know that we should read more books. Yes, we know that we shouldn’t drink that much coffee. But…..BUT…..We all know that there are small things we can do that could really have a big impact on our life or job. But we still don’t do these extra little things but they take time and effort. We are all guilty of that. I am for sure. Most of us can tell some stories about that.

CRITICAL SKILLS

About a year ago I had a revelation. Together with two hundred other business and IT people, I was listening to a presentation about common data visualization mistakes. YAWN…. How exciting. A few minutes into the presentation it dawned on me. I actually didn’t know all that much about proper charting techniques. I had never actually paid much attention to it. By looking at the reaction of the other attendees around me, I noticed that they were in the same boat. How can that be? We are all professionals that are dealing with data on a daily basis. Yet, so many of us have never paid much attention to proper visualization techniques.

THE MAGIC PIE

What is the message?

That day I decided to make a change.  I felt a pressing need to learn more about charting techniques. And when you look around you can easily see that many of us need to make this change as well: We use ugly pie charts left and right, we create meaningless 3D visualizations and we connect data points that should not be connected. And that is not too surprising. Nobody ever really taught us how to properly visualize data and when to leverage which type of chart. To make things worse, nobody ever questions this. Executives seem happy with their colorful 3D charts. I will never forget the day when my then-boss at a traditional German company almost fell off his chair when saw a ‘cool’ 3D diagram I had produced with Lotus 1-2-3. But at the end of the day, many charts do a very poor job at telling a good story about the data.

DATA IS THE NEW OIL

Data volumes grow. The speed and volatility of business are increasing. As a result, we all need to make sure that we find meaningful trends and insights in our growing pool of data. There is a lot of insight to be unlocked. Many people are therefore saying that ‘data is the new oil’. But in order to really get the best out of our data we need to learn how to visualize it properly.

THE POWER OF VISUALIZATION

As John Medina points out in his bestselling book ‘Brain Rules’: “Vision trumps all other senses.” The nerve pathways of our eyes to brain are extremely powerful. John Medina continuous by saying that “Professionals everywhere need to know about the incredible inefficiency of text-based information and the incredible effects of images”. In other words: dry tables of numbers just don’t cut it. A picture says more than a thousand words. Let’s create charts that tell a powerful story. And those charts are especially useful when we utilize them in dashboards. Dashboards should be visual to allow users to quickly absorb and digest critical information.

CHANGE

Charts can convey a powerful message

We should therefore all take the time to learn more about charting techniques. And it’s a simple thing to do. Pick up a copy of one of Stephen Few’s books (see below for a list of recommended reading). Roam around the website of visualization artist David McCandless (I wrote about him a while ago). Play with your current numeric reports and put them into charts. Compare the different stories. Over the next few weeks, I will write some posts about some of the powerful charting options in IBM Cognos 10. IBM Cognos 10 comes with almost 160 different chart types. There are some fantastic tools in there that can really make your data fly. Make sure to follow along to get some tips and tricks.

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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.

 

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