Tag Archives: business management dashboard

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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What my car taught me about designing a successful dashboard

A useful dashboard?

The other day, a former colleague sent me several screenshots of a ‘dashboarding solution’ a new team member had proposed to him. What I saw was wild: A set of complex, colorful and overloaded screens. Not just one screen, but a whole book of different pages. There were long tables mixed with colorful gauge charts. It took me a few minutes to understand what was happening. This was clearly not a dashboard but rather a poorly designed reporting application. A dashboard is meant to provide us with a quick overview of our most critical business information. It is not supposed to deliver us a 360 degree detailed view.

Unfortunately, too many dashboards are too complex these days. They fail to provide information at a glance. Overly complicated and saturated screens frustrate managers. To avoid project failure we should apply careful restraint during the dashboard design process. I have found that the dashboard in my car provides inspiration for that.

Dashboard

The car dashboard

Car dashboards are quite brilliant. They allow us to obtain critical information within a split of a second. How do they manage to do that? Here are some reasons why:

  • Simple – How long does it take to understand the dashboard of a new car? The answer is: It takes a few seconds. The car dashboards are deceptively simple. You don’t need the manual to understand how it works.
  • Compact – They are compact. There is a single screen. We don’t have to scroll through multiple screens to find out how fast we are going.
  • Uncluttered – Most car dashboards are super clean and uncluttered. Colors are carefully selected. There aren’t any logos. Every object has a clear purpose. It would be hard to take anything away.
  • Visual – Yes, they are visual. Visuals are easier to read than text. We do not find a table with our historical speed and RPM in the dashboard. Reading that would take too long and it would take the focus away from the road.
  • Important- Only the most important information is displayed.Everything serves a clear and distinct purpose. It would be almost impossible to take anything away.
  • Exceptions – Identifying problems is really simple – a red icon will immediately alert us. We don’t have to go digging for that critical information.
  • Entry point – Modern cars allow us to drill-down whenever there is an exception. But that is truly optional. The dashboard simple acts as the entry point and not more than that.

Your management dashboards

Next time you design a performance dashboard, think about this list. A lot of those qualities should also apply to your reports. It is our job as business analytics professionals to make it easy for managers and knowledge workers to turn data into information. But to do that, we need to pay attention to the design process.

Sales Dashboard

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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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Waterfall charts, pareto analysis and beyond

Waterfall Charts?

Do you like pies? I do! But not for analyzing data. Pie charts are just too busy and too hard to read in most situations. Yet they are the frequent tool of choice for visualizing the composition of a certain variable. Take a look at this example: I want to find out how total revenue is split between different product categories. The easy choice would be to create the following chart:

A product pie - created with IBM Many Eyes

Personally, I don’t like this! You constantly jump around the different pieces and it is really tough to obtain the overview that we are looking for. Pie charts work for few variables that account for larger pie slices. Another and better option is to use a bar chart. To make it easy for the viewer, I ranked the values in IBM Cognos 10:

Ranked bar chart - much better!

Isn’t this much better? You can quickly identify the best performing products. It is easy to read the individual contribution of each product. But I am not able to see my total revenue amount. Good news – there are different ways to perform this type of part-to-whole analysis

CHASING WATERFALLS

Waterfall charts (sometimes called Progressive Charts) allow us to visualize the composition of the a value along different segments. In plain English: Total revenue can be visualized as a build up of the different individual values of the products. Take a look at the example below. The values are once again ranked:

Waterfall Chart

A classic waterfall chart: Total revenue across products

Notice how quickly you can see the segment revenue along with the total revenue of roughly 540 million. I personally like the clean and uncluttered look. Reading the individual values is a bit harder than in the traditional bar chart. But IBM Cognos 10 allows me to hover over each segment to obtain the actual value. It’s personal taste which chart is more effective. Here you can see both versions side-by-side.

Which chart is your favorite?

Waterfall charts are great for any kind of part-to-whole analysis: revenue/ margin across products, customers, channels.  Composition of Profit across the P&L, etc.. There are a few interesting examples on Wikipedia.

THE PARETO CHART

There is yet another great option for displaying this type of data: Pareto Charts. They are are named after the Vilfredo Pareto who proposed the 80/20 principle. This chart simply enriches the bar chart we saw earlier with a cumulative percentage line. Take a look:

Pareto Chart

The Pareto chart: The cumulative percentage line adds further context

This graph allows us to quickly answer questions such as: Which products create 80% of my total revenue? (roughly everything up to Alpha Bronze). In other words: the pareto chart allows me to identify the most important items.  IBM Cognos 10 allows different customization options which I would highly recommend looking at. Hiding one of the axis is not a bad idea, for example. The use of colors could be helpful here to identify the main product categories:

Colors allow the user to identify the main product categories

Waterfall Chart vs Pareto Graph?

Seems like a lot of options, right? Which one is the best? Can’t say. It really depends on the situation. I like all of them. There are slight differences and it depends on the user. Waterfall charts are probably better suited for executive dashboards. Pareto charts are more likely useful for analytical purposes. And the classic bar chart is always is a winner. Try to add these charts to your tool-box! And drop those pies.

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Scatter charts – Good for relationships

SCATTER CHARTS – THE BASIC IDEA

One of the interesting and really fun things to watch is young kids learning about cause and effect. They pull on a string and music starts playing. They giggle. They push a car and the car begins to roll. And so we learn to be curious at an early age and we learn to look for cause and effect relationships. And this an especially useful skill to have in business. The discovery of relationships can help us make better decisions: what happens to our revenue, if we increase marketing spending, what happens to our customer inquiries if we lowered the price of our top product? Answers to these questions can provide valuable insights.

WHAT IS THE RELATIONSHIP?

How can we go about testing and identifying these relationships? One option would be to combine two data sets in a chart. Let’s say we wanted to analyze the relationship between our price and customer inquiries. How do customers react to a price increase or decrease? We could create a combination chart for our products which outlines the price (red line) and the inquiries (green bars):

Product Alpha - Is there a correlation between price & inquiries?

The product Charger - higher correlation?

When you look at these charts it seems that there is a loose relationship between price and inquiries for Alpha but a stronger relationship for the Charger product. But it is hard to really tell. Especially for Alpha. Overall, this chart is not all that useful. We need more information.

SCATTER CHARTS

This is where scatter charts come in handy – they allow us to quickly analyze the relationship between two numeric variables. We basically take a regular Cartesian 2D coordinate system with our two numeric variables plotted on each axis. The general norm is to plot the independent variable (in this example the price) on the horizontal axis and the dependent variable on the vertical axis (customer inquiries). Here is a simple example that I created with IBM Many Eyes:

Scatter charts

Marketing Spending and Revenue

The dots represent the values for individual marketing campaigns. We mark the amount of  spending on the x-axis and the resulting revenue from the campaign on the y-axis. We can easily tell that there is a relationship between marketing spending and revenue – we could almost draw a line between the dots. There is just one outlier on the bottom of the right-hand side.  By the way, it is really easy to create these charts with IBM’s Many Eyes tool. Check it out when you get a chance!

PRICE AND INQUIRIES

Back to the initial problem. Let’s see how price sensitive Alpha and Charger are. Let’s take a look at the resulting scatter plots. We have created these charts in Cognos 10 using the same data set. We have also included a trend line to make it easier to see a potential correlation:

Scatter charts in Cognos 10

Same data in a scatter chart. This makes more sense

Both of these graphs now tell a clear story: Alpha’s dots are literally scattered throughout the chart. There are plenty of outliers. This shows that there is just a weak correlation between price & inquiries. The picture is different for charger: The dots are more clustered and we can draw a good line, i.e. the correlation is pretty high.

SO WHAT?

Scatter charts are pretty simple to create and they do tell a good story if used for the right purpose. They are also ideal for large data volumes. However, they do ignore time. The combination charts I showed above would do a better job at that. But if we want to focus solely on the relationship, the scatter plots are better suited. Even though scatter plots are relatively easy to read, I would not recommend using them in an executive dashboard. You definitely need to know how to use them. They are probably better suited for analytical people. Also, keep in mind that while these charts help identify relationships pretty well there might still be other influence factors. But that is really common sense. So, next time you want to explore your data in a different way try scatter charts!

 

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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.

Recommended reading:

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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

 

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