Tag Archives: 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.


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


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:


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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Dashboard Design Advice: Avoid eye contact at all cost!!!

Dashboard Design

When I watch interviews with international sports stars, I sometimes have to laugh. Every inch of their clothing is plastered with logos from sponsors. It’s usually impossible to see or remember even a single one of them amidst this smorgasbord. We can spot a similar overload problem in many dashboards and reports. Corporate logos and stock photographs are injected to “enhance” the visual appearance of the objects. This is bad enough but some pictures are worse than others. Two weeks ago I saw an example of that. Several reports and dashboards featured photos of beautiful eyes. It was supposed to be a metaphor for business insight. Such a shame – it simply did not work.

Focal Point: Eyes

Decoration hardly ever motivates people to effectively consume information. On the contrary, photos and logos usually steals attention and waste valuable space. And human eyes are especially ill-suited as embellishment for reports or dashboards. Here is why: Eyes demand people’s attention (this is called visual weight) and they rank before anything else when we look at a photograph, a picture or a dashboard. Our eyes automatically gravitate towards that part. It’s like a magnet – eyes attract eye contact. And that pretty much explains why we should not include photos of eyes in our dashboards or reports. Take a look at the example below.Dashboard Logo

Notice how you keep jumping back to look at the eyes. This is a simple example, of course. Imagine if this was a full-screen dashboard. Your eyes would constantly flip back and forth between content and those blue eyes. Focus is lost. Plus there is the obvious question – why do we need to include the eyes here in the first place? They do not add any value whatsoever.

Let’s look at the better version.

Dashboard DesignNotice the difference? You are now able to focus on the chart. There is no distraction.

A lesson for report & dashboard design

Next time you design a report or dashboard, delete those logos and photos. Most of them do not add any value, anyway. The objective of proper report and dashboard design is to deliver information in the best possible way. Human eyes represent one of the biggest possible distractions. Images of eyes clearly have no space in report and dashboard design. Hence my advice for the day: Avoid eye contact at all cost!

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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


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.


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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Why bubble charts are cool

Things can be complex. Especially when we look at multi-dimensional data-sets. The objective of charts is to visualize data in the most effective and easy way. You shouldn’t need a PH.D. degree to decipher a complex chart. But it happens. There are a lot of complicated and useless charts out in dashboards. And it happens more often than we think. For example: Once we reach more than 2 dimensions, many people reach out for 3D charts. Let’s say we want to analyze market size, market share & margin. Many people are tempted to simply create a 3D bar-chart like the one below:

Chart 1 - Is this useful?

There are a lot of obvious problems with these type of charts: The dimension have different scales and it is therefore impossible to decipher. And let’s be honest – this looks super ugly. I could not, would not make a decision based on this chart. The other option is to break this out into multiple charts. But that requires a lot of space – and space is tight in a good dashboard. Analyzing numbers would also be more difficult in that setup as we have to shift our view from one chart to the next.


There is a better way to display this type of data. My boys loves this chart type: Bubble charts (all kids love bubbles!). Bubble charts allow us to visualize three different measures at the same time. And not only that: they are easy to read and they allow us to make critical associations between these measures. Let’s have a look at an example: This is a classic bubble chart that displays three different measures: Late shipments, damaged shipments and shipping cost for different carriers. The first two measures are obvious – they are represented by the x and y axis. The shipping costs, however, are visualized via the size of the bubble.

Bubble Charts

Chart 2 - A classic bubble chart

Notice how easy it is to read this chart (which vendor has the best performance?). Depending on the problem that I am trying to solve, I could simple look at the top right area to find the black sheep that are super later and also careless. Or, I could first focus on the size of business that we do with each carrier by picking out the large bubbles. Pretty simple. Also notice how this chart allows me to combine three measures with different types scales: percentages and absolute values. The traditional 3D bar chart was useless.


In Cognos 10, we can also turn any bubble chart into a quadrant chart. This is useful if you want to categorize your data a little further by using a common layout like it is used in a SWOT or market attractiveness analysis. Take a look at the bubble chart that we created using the data from the first Excel 3D example:

A classic bubble chart

Chart 3 - A quadrant bubble chart

This puts the data into further context and makes it really easy for managers to spot specific key points. For example, the attractive markets (high margin & high market share) are up in the right upper corner.

Cognos 10 also allows you to hover over each bubble and you will get the numeric details behind each bubble. This makes it really easy to explore the data.

Chart 4 - Use your mouse to explore


As nice as the bubble charts are, they are certainly not perfect. Take a look at Chart 3 above and focus on the intersection of 11.5% Net Margin & 2% Market Share. There is a bigger bubble covering a smaller one. That can easily happen. A superficial glance over the chart can therefore be problematic because we would not notice this. Careful color choice could potentially help uncover these cases. This probably also highlights that bubble charts might not be an ideal solution for large data sets as there would be too many overlaps. But nothing is perfect, right?

cognos slider

A slider - easy to use

Also, keep in mind that bubble charts in their pure and simple form only provide a snap-shot in time. Time-series analysis has to be done in a different manner. But the good news is that Cognos 10 offers us sliders. We can use these sliders to walk through history and easily discover changes in the data.


One person who has really popularized the bubble charts is scientist Hans Rosling. He literally makes data fly. If you haven’t done so, make sure to watch one of his famous TED presentations.

Take a look at bubble charts! Consider them for your next project. They are easy to understand and they allow us to make critical associations. Chances are managers who have attended business school will certainly like them.  A friend of mine always says that managers are like kids. And kids like bubbles, right?

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Why sparklines sparkle in a dashboard


One of the key features of the dashboard in any car is the fact that it is on a ‘single page’. Car dashboards are usually very simple and it doesn’t take us more than a few seconds to familiarize ourselves in a new vehicle. Could you imagine driving a car with a complicated dashboard? Could you imagine having to scroll through multiple pages to get a speed reading while you are driving down the German Autobahn with 200 km/h? The answer is no.


Good management dashboards should be concise as well. Executives especially don’t have the time and patience to scroll through multiple pages of information. But that often creates a problem: We have a lot of information to show but there is limited space. This problem arises especially when we want to show trends. A typical dashboard might want to show profits, margins, win/loss ratios, revenue, pipeline across multiple regions. One way to display this rich set of data in a table. But tables are ineffective in quickly displaying trends. And they take up a lot of space. The other option would be to show multiple line charts. But those take up a lot of space as well.


Information design guru Edward Tufte developed a solution for this problem. He created a new but very simple chart called a ‘Sparkline‘. He describes them as “data-intense, design-simple, word-sized graphics”. In other words: sparkline charts are very small, yet they display vital trend data. Take a regular time series such as revenue by months. Stick that into a sparkline chart. Below is an example:

Simple sparkline charts


When you look at the example above, you will notice how easy it is to spot the general trend: the Conservative Party is loosing ground. You have also noticed the little dots. IBM Cognos 10 allows you to color code the low, mid and high point. (red, black, green). The Green Party is gaining. You can hover your mouse over the line to get the actual value. This type of chart simply provides the ability to obtain a quick overview of the general trend and all that within a very tiny amount of space.


Sparklines truly show their full potential when you supplement them with metrics or other charts. Take a look the next example:

Sparklines in action

The above object allows us to review margins across regions. The sparklines quickly display the trend. The trend is supplemented with more detailed information. Notice how concise and compact the total object is. And here is an example where we can see the sparklines integrated into a regular dashboard:

A sample IBM Cognos 10 dashboard

The upper part allows us to quickly provide an overview of critical metrics across different dimensions.


In a prior blog post I discussed the bullet chart. Those charts are also quite small and highly useful. When you combine the sparkline with the bullet chart you have a powerful combination. Notice how much information we are able to absorb (trend, actual value, current performance). A traditional line chart would take up a lot more space.

Sparkling Bullets


Sparklines are great for displaying trends. This is ideal for supplementing current information (e.g. YTD Sales). They are tiny, they are easy to use and they are easy to understand. However, they will not replace a traditional line chart. Line charts are definitely a better choice when you want to perform a more detailed analysis. Next time you build a dashboard try to incorporate some sparkling charts.


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