Watch that chart aspect ratio!

The chart aspect ratio

The other day I reviewed a dashboard. It looked great. But there was a chart on the bottom that just did not make any sense. It was way too long and stretched out. As a result, it was very difficult to use it appropriately. And that reminded me: We have to watch out for the chart aspect ratio.

The basic idea

Wikipedia defines the aspect ratio as follows: “The aspect ratio of an image describes the proportional relationship between its width and its height.” It’s as simple as that. We get confronted with the aspect ration when we purchase a TV or computer monitor or when we work with photographs. Does the aspect ratio matter? Oh, yeah it does! Take a look at the two photographs below. The first one uses the common HD 16:9 ratio. I cropped the second one down to a square format (1:1). Do you see the difference in the overall impression of the photo?

Square Aspect Ratio
16:9 (HD) Aspect Ratio: Can you feel the wide and open ocean?
16:9 Aspect Ratio
Square Aspect Ratio: Not that great. The boat has too much visual weight and the ocean does not seem vast and wide.

 Your charts

The aspect ratio does matter for charts as well. We have to watch out for that when we create reports and dashboards or when we perform ad-hoc analysis. Not every chart aspect ratio works equally well. Take a look at the two examples below. Both of these charts have problems:

It is difficult to make sense of the data. It is too flat.
Chart Aspect Ratio
The peaks are very pronounced.

The first chart is definitely too flat – it is very difficult to analyze it. The second one is probably a bit too dense. The peaks are extremely pronounced and it would be easy to come to wrong conclusions.

A better approach

What is the idea aspect ratio then? Hard to say. It is typically a good idea to use a ratio that is wider than it is tall (2:1 or something like that). But it depends on what you want to show. From my point of view, it makes sense to experiment a little bit. I have noticed that some visualization experts have issues advice but I have found it to be very academic and hard to implement. To stick with the example from above, I did re-size the graph a bit and finally settled on this chart aspect ratio:

Better Aspect Ratio
This aspect ratio seems to work best for this data

Your dashboards & reports

Pay attention to the chart aspect ratio. Only because there is some space left in a dashboard does not mean we can or should stick a certain graph in there. The chart aspect ratio does matter quite a bit as we have just seen in these simple examples. Also, try experimenting with different chart aspect ratios when you perform analysis. Resizing charts with personal analytics tools such as Cognos Insight is really simple.


Dashboarding IBM Cognos Plan & Forecast

Forecast Analysis – An Effective Dashboard


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.


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.


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.

Analytics Reading

How Business Analytics can drive creativity & innovation

Last weekend I was reviewing my recent photography portfolio. I noticed an interesting theme: my favorite photographs seemed to be clustered around certain months. There are a few months when my activity was low and the resulting photos were not that great. That raised an interesting question: Do we get more creative by being more active?


Simply taking more photographs will probably not increase your creativity. But, there seems to be a clear connection between being curious and immersed in a certain field (e.g. photography). Indeed, several creative minds have confirmed this link.

The path towards creativity & innovation

In his excellent eBook “The Inspired Eye” Master photographer David duChemin says:

“Creative people are raw material gatherers, they hunger for ideas and go outside of the camp to find them. You must increase your inputs, the more ideas and influences you ingest, the more your creative being has to work with – the more Lego blocks your inner creative has to work with.”

In other words, the more we experience, the more interesting things we see, the more we try new things, the higher our creativity will most likely be. That explains why me taking more photographs, me being engaged in the process probably led to better results.


How does this relate to business? Let’s look at Steve Jobs. Most of us admire Apple for for it’s enormous amount of creativity. In his book ‘The Innovation Secrets of Steve Jobs’, Carmine Gallo looks at several factors that are responsible for Apple’s tremendous success at delivering innovation. Turns out that Steve Jobs and his team are indeed fueling their brains with multiple experiences. They hire diverse people with different backgrounds. They study the designs of ‘boring’ products such as rice cookers, blenders, cars. Steve Jobs studied calligraphy during his student days which ultimately resulted in Apple’s huge focus on beautiful design. To back up how and why this results in higher creativity, Gallo quotes neuroscientist Gregory Berns:

“To see things differently than other people, the most effective solution is to bombard the brain with things it has never encountered before. Novelty releases the perceptual process from the shackles of past experiences and forces the brain to make new judgements.” 


If you think about it, Business Analytics is an ideal platform for driving creativity and innovation. The technology allows us to to effectively ‘bombard their brains with new things’:

  • We are able to explore and to relate
  • We are able to slice and dice
  • We are able to drill-down
  • We are able to quickly identify and analyze trends
  • We can create what-if scenarios on the fly
  • We can probe, we can test
Business Analytics - the better approach

Do you see the connection? But not only that – Business Analytics software also lowers the barrier towards asking new & different questions. The ability to view data from different angles, to ability to associate new sets of data has the potential to create new insights. People are no longer afraid to analyze their business from a different perspective: they don’t have to wait and they don’t have to go through a complicated process to obtain the data.

In her excellent article “Data dive reveals and ocean of trends’, Lynn Greiner states:

“BI software gives you the ability to dive into data and find trends and relationships you may not have considered, or to find the cause of anomalies you’ve noticed.”

Keep this in mind!  Business Analytics can make a big contribution towards higher creativity. Just take a look at some of the really successful companies these days…chances are they are very analytical! What are your thoughts and experiences?

Events IBM Cognos

What’s happening in the IBM Labs? The BA Forum Keynote – Day 2

Information on Demand 2011

The IBM Business Analytics Forum 2011 featured two keynotes this year. The day 1 keynote focused on the general IBM strategy in the business analytics segment along with several product updates and demos. The day 2 presentation had a bigger focus on specific solutions. And not only that: There was a preview of what is being developed in the IBM Labs. You will have to watch the hands-on demo.

The Cognos keynote chapters

In case you have limited time, here are some key chapters that can view in the video below.

  • Minute 10:30 – Trends & Decision Making with Deepak Advani
  • Minute 23:30 – Demo: Social Media Analysis – Jason Verlen
  • Minute 28:30 – Solution update with Deepak Advani
  • Minute 45:00 – Demo: Decision Management – Jason Verlen
  • Minute 55:30 – IBM Labs (Personal Analytics) with Harriet Fryman, Eric Yau and Christoph Papenfuss

Watch live streaming video from ibmsoftware at


[nggallery id=3]

Events & Workshops

Information on Demand 2011 – A great show

Greetings from the Information on Demand in Las Vegas – again. It’s been extremely busy here. From looking at the participants, it feels that the conference is a huge success. Sessions are packed, the Expo is busy and the evening events are great fun.


One of the highlights of the conference was most certainly the first Business Analytics keynote by Rob Ashe, Eric Yau and Deepak Advani. Over 3000 people attended the session. They presentation focused on a number of things including market trends, solution updates and key investment areas for the next 12 months. Eric Yau also interviewed a very special customer: the Cincinnati Zoo. Director of Operations, John Lucas, shared how the zoo leverages Cognos 10 to improve their overall performance. He also gave a hands-on demo which was very cool.


Following the interview with John Lucas, I had the honor to show four new demos:

  • Mobile – The new iPad app for Cognos 10
  • Business Insight – New features and overview
  • SPSS Modeller – New features and overview
  • Scenario planning with TM1 and Cognos 10

My colleague Ben Plummer also gave a sneak preview of a potential future products that is in the labs. This was not your average demo. Football fans will love it

In case you have not been able to catch the session, make sure to watch the recording. Here are a couple of pointers in case your have limited time:

  • Minute 8 – Rob Ashe takes the stage and provides an update on Business Analytics
  • Minute 32 – Eric Yau discusses the latest technology
  • Minute 38 – John Lucas discusses the Cincinnati Zoo story
  • Minute 51 – Cognos demos


Watch live streaming video from ibmsoftware at

Stay tuned for some additional updates in the next few days. #iod11 #baforum

[nggallery id=1]


Part 2 – The IBM Cognos Mobile for iPad app

Mobile BI is hot. No wonder that the new IBM Cognos iPad app has been getting a lot attention. My initial review from a few days ago was quite popular (Thanks for spreading the word!). The same is true for the quick report about Cognos 10 on the iPhone. It’s been pretty hectic since then, but I finally had some time to sit down and play with the app a bit more over the past two days. In particular, I wanted to check out the online capabilities. One of the great things about the app is that you can use it offline and online – truly a mobile BI solution.


Connecting to my Cognos 10 server was straight forward. I just entered the regular server URL, user ID and password. The app connected without a glitch. All my folders were immediately accessible and I was able to browse through the content using the regular iOS gestures. Instead of browsing you can also perform a search: Click on the magnifying glass, enter a search term and the app will return the relevant objects.

IBM Cognos ipad
Browsing through your Cognos 10 content on the iPad


The server I was working with is used to run the extremely popular IBM Business Analytics Experience workshop. I chose a bunch of reports and dashboards that were developed to run on a regular PC. The iPad app loaded them without hesitation and they looked just as beautiful if not better than on a regular laptop screen.

IBM Cognos Dashboard
A sample dashboard


Reviewing the charts and tables is a lot of fun on the iPad. What I enjoyed best though, is the ability to interact: put your finger on a certain data point in a chart and the app will provide the according value in a small bubble. If you want some additional info, just click on the little i icon in the bubble and you will get additional context.

IBM Cognos iPad App
Can't touch this? Yes, you sure can.


Drilling up and down is just as simple as well. Put your finger on a data point and select drill down/ up. It’s easy and intuitive. Much better than a mouse click.

IBM Cognos Mobile - Cognos 10
Where is my drill?


Getting connected to the Cognos server was easy. All I need was the standard URL, user name and password. It didn’t take any time at all. My regular desktop content worked well on the iPad just like on the iPhone.  We did not have to do any kind of re-coding or re-formatting for the iPad (I ran 11 different dashboards). Navigation was intuitive and working with the mobile BI content is a lot of fun. There is something cool and magic about touching your data – a phenomenon that many of us have noticed – let’s call it the “iPad goggles”…

If you have not had a chance to see the app, make sure to download it from the iTunes app store.

IBM Cognos Visualization

A Cognos 10 Dashboard

Cognos 10 offers a huge library of charts. Several new types were added in the last release. There are now over 160 different charts available. Amongst the new additions, you will also find Stephen Few’s bullet charts. They nicely complement the existing sparklines that were already available in version 8.4. Cognos 10 also provides new and enhanced color palettes that help design beautiful reporting objects. Overall, Cognos 10 offers some really cool options for building effective dashboards.


My colleague and friend Paul sat down last week to quickly create a sample dashboard in Cognos 10 using the new stuff. He took the new charts and also applied one of the palettes. Take a look – I love it! It’s simple but very effective. As a sales executive, I will immediately obtain an overview of my business.

Cognos Sales Dashboard


Bullet charts and sparklines are also available for Active Reports. You can therefore build awesome looking dashboards for online and offline use. Even better: they also work with the new iPad app.

If you happen to attend BAForum in Las Vegas in a few weeks from now, make sure to look for some the sessions that discuss Cognos 10 and dashboarding techniques in detail.



Dashboarding IBM Cognos

Mobile BI – Cognos 10 on the iPhone

The recent release of the new IBM Cognos Mobile for iPad app has created many excited discussions. I will post a more extensive review in a few days from now. Today I realized that most people have stopped talking about the iPhone. It seems that the iPad is getting all the attention these days. But to be fair, most people probably carry their iPhones with them more often than the iPad. But the good news is that Cognos 10 also runs on the iPhone. There is no dedicated app, but Cognos 10 runs in Safari. While waiting in the airline lounge to board another flight, I logged onto one of my servers to test the new 10.1.1 functionality.


Logging into Cognos 10 is easy. I plugged in the regular server address, entered my user name and password. You can see that I was on the normal 3G network.

Cognos 10 on iPhone

After logging in, I was able to browse through my content. Everything was there that I expected and navigation follows the regular iPhone gestures: You swipe to scroll through your content and you point to access folders or reporting objects.

Cognos 10 folders on iPhone


I selected a few of the reports and dashboards. Everything worked nicely – Business Insight dashboards as well as standard Report Studio content. The great thing about Cognos 10 is the principle of author once and consume anywhere: There is no re-coding required to make the content run on the iPhone. At this point I switched to the horizontal view as it was easier to review the dashboard below:

Cognos iPhone Dashboard

Of course, it is possible to zoom in and out using gestures. By pointing at data elements, you can bring up a small header that provides additional context (precise values, dimensions etc.). If available, you can also drill up/ down or through.

Cognos 10 iPhone

Response time on this dashboard was very decent given the 3G connection. The drill-down took less than 3-5 seconds.

Cognos iPhone


Prompts work as well. It is also possible to build reports with location-awareness prompts that pull the data from the iPhone GPS coordinates. I was not able to test that – maybe in the near future. But the possibilities are awesome if you think about it. And there are some additional features such as the ability to set favorite reports, select a home screen dashboard etc..

Cognos iPhone prompt


Cognos 10 on the iPhone works pretty well. Dashboards and reports do look nice on the small screen. It is easy to review numbers & trends on the go. This is ideal for mobile workers wanting to stay connected with their business no matter where they are. However, the iPad and the laptop are definitely better suited for getting your tough work done. The screen is just not big enough on the iPhone. But that’s no surprise. The iPhone is a phone and not a full-fledged PC after all.

If you want additional information about the updates for IBM Cognos Mobile in version 10.1.1 click here.


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.


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


Dashboarding – Insights from Mike Duncan, Bizzeness -Part 1

Your dashboard should provide the least amount of the most critical data

In a previous post I discussed the art of dashboarding at a very fundamental level. That post sparked enough interest that I wanted to follow with more discussion about the practical aspects of dashboarding.

Here are three of the most compelling practical questions on the subject:

  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?

Dashboarding in Your Organization

You have probably seen a view of mission control during a space shuttle mission. There is a large screen on the wall tracking the most basic information about the shuttle – where it is, its projected path on the current trajectory, speed, and other basics. That is Houston’s dashboard.

Dozens of mission specialists are seated around the large screen viewing their own small screens – their own dashboards. Each specialist has an area of responsibility, so each has his/her own dashboard, providing real time data indicating the performance of the key systems for their area of responsibility. For example, the APU specialist probably has a screen showing the amount of power from and condition of each APU – auxiliary power unit.

Mission Control in Houston provides a comprehensive example for your own dashboarding program. The contents and use of each dashboard is determined by the goals and objectives of the user’s area of responsibility – from the big screen on the wall (responsible for mission success) to the screens on each person’s desk (e.g., responsible for APU’s).

Each business has a unique dashboard specific to its objectives and industry, and each critical function of the business has its own dashboard specific to its area of responsibility. The CEO watches the entire business entity, the CFO watches the financial systems, the COO watches operations, and so on. For small and medium size businesses (SMB), the business owner usually gets the privilege of watching all of these areas, making their dashboarding program even more important and more challenging.

Breaking down your organization by functions will help in the layout of your dashboarding program. Each dashboard should be designed to provide glance and go information – the least amount of the most critical data for the function. If there are multiple levels of managed responsibility, a cascading dashboard program should be used – multiple dashboards providing KPI’s for each area of responsibility.

Next Time . . .

Check in on my next post as I conclude with Questions 2 and 3, providing some insight into the process of selecting your KPI’s and address some of the most common and damaging mistakes people make in dashboarding.

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