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.

THE CASE FOR BUBBLE CHARTS

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.

THERE IS MORE

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

THE LIMITATIONS

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.

LAST BUT NOT LEAST

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

SPARKLINES SPARKLE

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.

THE CONSTRAINTS

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.

THE SPARKLINE

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

ELEMENTS

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 AT WORK

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.

SPACE SAVERS

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 – A FINAL WORD

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.

 

Hands-up! Here comes a bullet chart

Executives often want to have a quick overview of some key metrics to find out what the state of their business is. Questions like: Are my margins on target? Is customer satisfaction within an acceptable range? What is the size of my pipeline? All this information is typically summarized in a dashboard. The easy thing is to simply put this into a table. But tables are hard to read. And they take up a lot of space. The other popular option is to put the data into a gauge chart. But gauge charts take up a lot of space, too. And if we are honest with ourselves: they are really hard to read. Granted they look cool. But do they tell a story in an effective and efficient manner? Probably not.

A BULLET

A few years ago, Stephen Few introduced a new chart that promises to fix the shortcomings of the above described approaches. It is very simple but powerful chart and it is called ‘Bullet Chart’. Cognos 10 allows us to leverage these charts. Below is an example:

Let’s take a look. The above example shows the election results of a fictitious political party. The blue bar in the middle indicates the actual value (4.8%). The short black bullet towards the top indicates a target measure (e.g. budget, forecast, etc.). Color shades display ranges of performance (e.g. poor, acceptable, good). We can quickly see that the party missed the target but the result falls into the acceptable range. It is indeed a very simple chart that provides a lot of information in a concise manner: Target, Actual, Performance Rating. In Cognos 10, you have the ability to set five different performance zones in different shades or colors.

A STACK OF BULLETS

One the things I like about the bullet charts is the fact that you can easily stack them. That makes the bullet chart an ideal way of communicating multiple measures in a dashboard. It is easy to get a quick overview and the stack is very space efficient. In Cognos 10, we can have vertical or horizontal bullet charts.

The stack of bullet consumes little space

CAUTION?

The are just two minor downsides that I see with the bullet charts. The chart in its pure form does not allow us to show the future trend or forecast. Also,  it does not display history. It is a simple snapshot in time. But the last shortcoming can easily be mitigated by combining the bullet chart with a sparkline. (I will look at sparklines in the next post)

Toss those gauges! Take a look at the bullet charts next time you design a dashboard. But make sure to train your users. Despite its simplicity, I have seen some people struggle to understand this chart. We don’t want our users to bite another bullet, right?

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

 

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.


Business Analytics and the art of cycling

Road biking is a big passion of mine. The other day I was out on a long training ride with a good friend. One of the nice things about biking is that you can talk a lot on those rides. Since we were talking about different aspects of our work, my friend finally wanted to know what was so special about this “Business Analytics stuff”. How do you best explain that to somebody who is only remotely connected to IT, Finance and management? Luckily, I had a great story to tell him. And it’s not just a regular story. It is actually my personal success story in cycling.

HIGH TECH

About a decade ago, modern technology entered the world of professional cycling. Smart technology became available to measure not only the typical parameters of cycling like speed, distance etc.. This new piece of technology was called a “Powermeter”. This high-tech gadget allowed cyclists to measure advanced data such as power output, pedal torque, cadence etc.. Today some of these devices even measure aerodynamic drag.  Powermeters help athletes like myself to learn about themselves and to perform better. Needless to say, I invested in this technology about five years ago. It is a CycleOps Powertap with Bluetooth technology.

THE ERP OF CYCLING

Ok. But what does that have to do with Business Analytics. Very easy. The Powermeter is my transactional system. It records my ‘business’ on the bike. Second by second. Mile by mile. While I am riding, I can check my speed, power output, cadence and many other things. Just like a good solid ERP system. The gadget allows me to manage the operational aspects of my ‘cycling business’, i.e. I can lower my power output, increase cadence etc..

ENTER ANALYTICS

After each ride, I can then download the ride data. There is an extremely awesome piece of software called WKO+. It was created by two smart cycling professionals that have conducted ground-breaking research. This application helps athletes analyze their ride data. The objective is to become smarter (think knowledge about your own body) and to make better decisions about your training. This is basically Business Analytics for cyclists. Let’s take a look at how this works.

THE DASHBOARD

After each ride, I can analyze a Dashboard. This dashboard provides me with an overview of my most important metrics such as power output, mileage, cadence, time in training zones, etc.. There is a daily and a monthly dashboard. This helps me identify potential issues and to check my overall performance and progress. In Business Analytics, we implement dashboards for our executives and managers. The only difference is that they look at different metrics like sales, margins, profits.

WKO+ dashboard
The cycling dashboard from WKO+

ANALYSIS

If I spot something curious, e.g. an unexpected poor performance on a ride, I can immediately drill down to analyze the detailed data from my ride. This analysis contains a detailed report of some metrics and I can visually analyze the ride second by second. Going through the data, I can spot interesting things like power spikes, rest periods etc.. This helps me put the overall picture together of why I performed in a certain way. The analysis also helps me learn more about myself: what are my boundaries, what are my strengths etc.. The same thing is true for Business Analytics. If we spot some problems or opportunities, we perform analysis using our rich transactional data. This helps us identify critical business insight.

WKO+ detailed ride analysis
The detailed analysis of the ride: power, altitude and more

LOOKING AHEAD

Now that I have understood how and why I performed on my bike I can start using this information to plan and adjust my upcoming training plan. There are some smart algorithms in the software that help predict future performance based on past power-output and training load. Using this inside, I can then fine-tune my training plan and hopefully scare my riding friends by outperforming. Many companies leverage Predictive Analytics to make sense of data and to look ahead. They want to identify customers that might be more profitable in the future. They might want to spot opportunities for cost savings. And they use the insights to formulate and update their business plans.

Planning ahead

THE ROI

My friend now understands clearly what Business Analytics is all about. Since I was able to seriously drop him on a climb he was curious about the ROI of this. Well, the technology has enabled me to learn a ton about myself. I know my boundaries and I am able to push myself much further than I ever have. I was able to survive a grueling 7 day stage race across the Alps and all that with a minimum of preparation. All that by being smart about my racing tactics and most importantly about my training approaches. The same thing is true for businesses. I have worked with companies that have literally transformed the way they do business using the insights offered by modern Business Analytics software. This software now represents the central nervous system of these organizations. Why don’t you try that yourself?

If you are interested in learning more about how I use a powermeter during training, please read my personal blog: