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?

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:

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

 

Visualization of unstructured information

The other day, I attended a great exhibit that was put together by my friend Bernhard Lermann (@lermann) and his companion Jens Semjan. Their Munich exhibit called “The Eternal Timeline Show” is highly unusual, very entertaining and informative. Apart from educating me on a few things, the exhibit certainly triggered a lot of thinking around data visualization.

THE ETERNAL TIMELINE

Eternal Timelines

What is so special about this exhibit and what is the relationship to visualization? Very simple. Lermann & Semjan decided to visualize history. We have all read history books. Many of them are quite boring and lengthy. The two artists decided to take a different approach by creating visual timelines around certain topics. In the exhibit you can find a timeline for Apple, for example. Another timeline focuses on the history of networking. All this is displayed on long sheets of endless paper. The spectators are able to walk the timelines up and down. Apart from some classic history themes (epidemics, revolution, etc..) there are also some interesting newer topics such as tweets that led up to the revolution Egypt a few weeks ago.

ENGAGING VISUALS

The timelines represent an excellent example for visualizing unstructured information. What I found is that many people walked the timelines up and down. And many people showed a reaction: They stopped, they thought, they discussed. It was quite interesting to watch. But not surprising. We all know that pictures say more than words. Being able to physically walk the timelines spectators are getting engaged with history. They are also able to relate events (just move over to the left…). Last but not least, I found that I had absorbed a lot of knowledge within a very short period of time. Visuals do that for us. They help us make connections.

THE LESSON?

You Tube was here! The history of networking

Visuals are extremely helpful. They help us identify trends, see patterns and they sometimes connect with us on an emotional level. There is plenty of room for us to leverage this powerful tool in business. Let’s start visualizing our monthly variance reports. Let’s visualize the behavior of our customers. We can all save a lot of time and we can have more fun at work. There is ample of opportunity for us to visualize our data and information. This exhibit is a fine example of that. It inspired me and many other people. If you happen to be in Munich, make sure to stop by the exhibit or get in touch with the artists. Also, make sure to watch David McCandless’ presentation about data visualization at TED.

Never trust a statistic?

Everybody hates and loves statistics. Right? If we can, we use statistics to obtain buy-in. Otherwise we might argue against them. They always say: “Never trust a statistic that you haven’t manipulated yourself.”

Regardless of what we think about statistics, we are constantly being bombarded by them. News, websites, TV, etc.. They are everywhere. In business we drown in metrics. In our personal lives we suffocate from mind-boggling numbers like deficits, deaths, cost and you name it. But there is a fundamental flaw with the way we communicate data points: They are often meaningless. Because we do not understand them. What’s a 23 billion USD deficit? Hmm…a lot of money. As much as I hate to quote a dictator, but there is truth in the words: Joseph Stalin apparently said: “One death is a tragedy; one million is a statistic.”

When we quote numbers we need to make sure that we put things into context. We need to make numbers more relevant for them to have impact.

In a future post, I will provide some tips for making data in reports & dashboards more relevant. Watch this inspiring yet frustrating performance by Chris Jordan to find out more about the blinding side of numbers:

The power of Data visualization

We all know that visual information display is more effective. But yet, we still create, run & analyze hundreds of thousands of flat reports. A survey from 2007 (CFO Executive Board) found that the average management report is 30-40 pages long and that it contains 12000 to 15000 data points. But only 5% of those are deemed to be important. The most obvious question that comes to mind is: How much time is wasted to go through this amount of data and turn this into real insights? Would it help to start using more powerful visuals to display the hidden meaning behind all those data?

Watch this inspiring and entertaining speech by author, journalist & visualization pioneer David McCandless. I will blog about some of his ideas and how they relate to business at a later point.