Tag Archives: Performance 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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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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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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Forecast Analysis – An Effective Dashboard

FORECAST ANALYSIS

Last week I argued that a detailed variance report is not very helpful before and during the forecasting and budgeting process. That post continues to be one of the most popular ones recently. But why not take the basic ideas a few steps forward and create a dedicated forecasting dashboard? A dashboard allows us to view the critical information that we need to get our job done (i.e. create the forecast or the budget) in a single place. Conducting forecast analysis with this dashboard becomes easy and is less time-consuming than analyzing hundreds of variances in a spreadsheet.

A COGNOS 10 DASHBOARD

My colleague Paul took the ideas from the last post and he created an awesome forecasting dashboard in Cognos 10. Take a look (click on the image to enlarge):

forecast analysis

Forecast Analysis with IBM Cognos 10 - Business Insight

This forecasting dashboard is geared towards a revenue forecast. The widget in the upper left corner provides a quick overview of year-to-date product sales. You might notice the use of micro-charts: the sparklines display the sales trend for each region. The accompanying bullet charts show the current status against plan (YTD).

The other widgets provide a balanced mix of historical data (revenue, deal-size, expense ratio) and leading indicators (Win/ Loss Ratio, Customer Satisfaction). But there is also other important forward-looking information. Take a look at the lower left corner: We can view upcoming marketing events along with the anticipated number of participants and the expected sales pipeline. That is helpful for assessing future sales.

EFFECTIVE FORECAST ANALYSIS

This forecasting dashboard can help prepare for the actual forecasting process. It provides a better picture of the business than any detailed variance report can. And think about the time savings as well. The latter requires a lot of effort to be consumed. The dashboard on the other hand is efficient and effective. Last but not least, the dashboard can be utilized on a daily basis.

So, that is a forecasting dashboard built with Cognos 10. I love the look and feel. It is simple, clean and easy to interact with.

 P.S.: The type of information to be included in such a dashboard obviously varies by company and industry.

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Dashboarding – Insights from Mike Duncan – Part 2

Each indicator must have a strong correlation to your ability to effect change

In my last post I laid out 3 practical and compelling questions in developing your dashboarding program:

  1. How should my company be using a dashboard(s)?
  2. What is the basic process for choosing my KPI’s?
  3. What are some common mistakes I should avoid in my dashboarding?

Today I conclude with Questions 2 and 3.

Selection of KPI’s

KPI’s are dictated by the strategy of each business against the backdrop of standards or benchmarks for its industry, so every dashboard is different. Your KPI’s are singular to you and your business. While you can look to examples for general guidance, you need to work through the process of defining KPI’s for your own business.

These questions may help you start your KPI identification and selection process:

  1. At what level of responsibility is the dashboard being used?
  2. What are the strategies and objectives that are driving the data requirements?
  3. What data provide the best indicators of performance for these requirements?
  4. How can this data be portrayed to maximize readability and minimize response time?
  5. What is the strength of the correlation between the data and your ability to influence change?

The first two questions presume that you have already completed other required steps, such as developing a strategic plan and defining the related goals and objectives. Data points floating against dark space are meaningless. They must be oriented against your goals and industry/competitor benchmarks. The last three questions address the qualitative aspects of KPI’s.

Perhaps the most basic consideration is reflected in the last question. Each indicator must have a strong correlation to your ability to effect change. Stated more simply, the whole purpose of dashboarding is built on the assumption that you have the ability to quickly influence outcomes as you respond to information from key indicators.

For example, daily magazine advertising dollars spent is probably meaningless because display advertising doesn’t move sales on a daily basis and the lead time to place such ad sales is at least 6 months. You lose on both counts – sales and costs.

Common Mistakes in Dashboarding

These are some of the most common and harmful mistakes in dashboarding:

  • Overloading the dashboard – This is the most common mistake. Getting the most from the least is your goal. Loading every metric about your company onto a dashboard will only confuse and delay your response; equals damage to the company.
  •  Expecting too much – Dashboarding has a very specific purpose and value. It does not replace regular reporting. Don’t try to manage your business entirely from the dashboard. This will push you to put too much onto it and you will tend to lose sight of longer term trends.
  • Misreading the data – You can minimize the risk of misreading data in the KPI definition process. Choose data that is easy to interpret and consistently reliable.

Responding incorrectly – Lives have been lost more than once from a pilot pulling up the nose when the warning system is telling him to increase altitude. He should have first put the nose down for speed to create lift needed for altitude. He thought “up,” pulled the stick and stalled the plane. Know how you are going to respond to an indicator before going live.

Conclusion

There are books, classes, and careers dedicated to the practice of dashboarding. It is a very important business practice and can become an invaluable business tool to make your life easier and your business more successful. Spend the time needed to do it right.

 

Bizzeness - Mike DuncanAbout the author of this post:

Mike Duncan is Partner and co-founder of Bizzeness, LLC. Mike began his career with KPMG and Deloitte. He has been a business owner and advisor for over 30 years serving over 300 businesses in various capacities. Mike focuses on SMB’s with concept development, business modeling, start-up, market adaption, strategy and succession. Mike lives in the Kansas City area. You can contact Mike at mike@bizzeness.com.

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A few thoughts about gauge charts

Let me start by saying an obvious thing: Gauge charts do deserve some recognition. Actually, they deserve a medal – a medal for being the most controversial chart type in history.

When I first saw a gauge chart, I was impressed. They looked pretty cool. Things changed when I got involved with my first BI project. A closer look revealed that these charts are actually pretty tough to look at. But let’s back up and start from the beginning.

GAUGE CHART

Gauge charts allow us to visualize data in a way that resembles a real-life speedometer needle or a regular gauge. They usually  display a single key measure. The outer scale of the gauge is often color-coded to provide additional performance context (green for good, red for bad). Below is a typical example:

Gauge Charts

Feels like driving a car?

Continue reading

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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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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?

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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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