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.

 

Charts? Yes, I know….

Dashboarding….Part 2.

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

CRITICAL SKILLS

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

THE MAGIC PIE

What is the message?

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

DATA IS THE NEW OIL

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

THE POWER OF VISUALIZATION

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

CHANGE

Charts can convey a powerful message

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

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