Dashboarding remains one of the most important topics in the Business Analytics area. Most of my clients are actively working on deploying them. Back in January dashboarding was one of the key topics at the Gartner BI Summit. The broad interest in our dashboarding workshops further shows just how important this topic is for companies.
Business Analytics basically allows us to make better business decisions by providing answers to three key questions:
How am I doing?
Why is that so?
What should I be doing?
Dashboards do a fine job with answering the first question: You quickly assess the current situation, you identify potential opportunities and risks. But to do that effectively, dashboards need to be designed in the proper way:
They require the right mix of information
The information needs to be displayed in a manner that effectively delivers the story
The technology needs to support proper interaction so that the next two questions can be answered.
Last week, Google+ recommended an excellent blog post by Mike Duncan from the business advisory firm Bizzeness. Mike provides some simple but very effective thoughts about dashboards. I highly recommend reading his short post. There are some great ideas in there that can help you articulate the purpose and value of a dashboard to a broader audience.
Mike and I ended up discussing his post via Twitter and email. I am very happy that he has agreed write two guest posts on this blog (Performance Ideas) next week. The articles will focus on interacting with dashboards, selecting proper KPIs and avoiding some common problems. Make sure to check in on Tuesday of next week or simply subscribe to Performance Ideas via RSS feed or email.
A few months ago, I sat right next to a guy on a plane. Once we were up in the air, he pulled out a big stack of paper reports. He equipped himself with a ruler, a marker, a pencil and a calculator. All that on the tiny fold-down table in economy class. Didn’t look like fun. But to be fair, most planes still do not offer WIFI and we still have to get our work done. So, what is the alternative to paper reports? PDF is ok, but it is impossible to interact with the data. Excel is ok, too. But Excel is not secure and potentially too complicated. And none of these options are suited for building effective management dashboards.
OFFLINE MANAGEMENT DASHBOARDS
What can we do then? IBM introduced IBM Cognos Active Report with the latest Cognos 10 release. It basically allows report authors to develop interactive management dashboards and reporting applications for offline use.
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 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:
Do you like pies? I do! But not for analyzing data. Pie charts are just too busy and too hard to read in most situations. Yet they are the frequent tool of choice for visualizing the composition of a certain variable. Take a look at this example: I want to find out how total revenue is split between different product categories. The easy choice would be to create the following chart:
Personally, I don’t like this! You constantly jump around the different pieces and it is really tough to obtain the overview that we are looking for. Pie charts work for few variables that account for larger pie slices. Another and better option is to use a bar chart. To make it easy for the viewer, I ranked the values in IBM Cognos 10:
Isn’t this much better? You can quickly identify the best performing products. It is easy to read the individual contribution of each product. But I am not able to see my total revenue amount. Good news – there are different ways to perform this type of part-to-whole analysis
Waterfall charts (sometimes called Progressive Charts) allow us to visualize the composition of the a value along different segments. In plain English: Total revenue can be visualized as a build up of the different individual values of the products. Take a look at the example below. The values are once again ranked:
Notice how quickly you can see the segment revenue along with the total revenue of roughly 540 million. I personally like the clean and uncluttered look. Reading the individual values is a bit harder than in the traditional bar chart. But IBM Cognos 10 allows me to hover over each segment to obtain the actual value. It’s personal taste which chart is more effective. Here you can see both versions side-by-side.
Waterfall charts are great for any kind of part-to-whole analysis: revenue/ margin across products, customers, channels. Composition of Profit across the P&L, etc.. There are a few interesting examples on Wikipedia.
THE PARETO CHART
There is yet another great option for displaying this type of data: Pareto Charts. They are are named after the Vilfredo Pareto who proposed the 80/20 principle. This chart simply enriches the bar chart we saw earlier with a cumulative percentage line. Take a look:
This graph allows us to quickly answer questions such as: Which products create 80% of my total revenue? (roughly everything up to Alpha Bronze). In other words: the pareto chart allows me to identify the most important items. IBM Cognos 10 allows different customization options which I would highly recommend looking at. Hiding one of the axis is not a bad idea, for example. The use of colors could be helpful here to identify the main product categories:
Waterfall Chart vs Pareto Graph?
Seems like a lot of options, right? Which one is the best? Can’t say. It really depends on the situation. I like all of them. There are slight differences and it depends on the user. Waterfall charts are probably better suited for executive dashboards. Pareto charts are more likely useful for analytical purposes. And the classic bar chart is always is a winner. Try to add these charts to your tool-box! And drop those pies.
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):
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.
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:
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:
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.
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!
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:
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.
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:
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.
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?
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?
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 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 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?
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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 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.
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.
Next 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”,
Amazon.com’s recommendation engine is pretty amazing I have to admit. The algorithms at work clearly know how to expand one’s horizon beyond the obvious choices. Needless to say, I was a bit surprised and almost annoyed when the engine suggested the fluffy sounding title ‘The Happiness Advantage’. Does amazon.com really think I need some self-help books??? To make a long story short, I ended up buying the book based on the enormously positive reviews and my general curiosity. Turns out that this was a good decision. But apart from providing some provocative ideas the book also revealed some highly interesting research about social networks. And this research is relevant to Business Analytics.
One of the key points in the book is that the quality and the strength of our social network has a big impact on our happiness and our job performance. In other words: The more stressed we are, the more time we should invest in social interaction. We all seem to know that…sort of. One of the researchers mentioned in the book is George Vaillant. In an article from 2009 in the Atlantic Monthly he stated that there are ’70 years of evidence that our relationships with other people matter, and matter more than anything else in the world.’ That is a pretty big statement, but I guess we all agree with that. So, that is not a surprise. But there is a big surprise.
THE SOCIAL NETWORK AT WORK
Shawn Achor goes ahead and describes that studies have found that positive social interaction between employees during work hours are tremendously effective at protecting people from the stress of their job. As a result, those people that invest in these interactions typically perform better. Again. Seems like common sense. But it gets better. The MIT was looking at this stuff as well. So they spent an entire year at a small company that you might have heard of: IBM. The researchers from MIT followed over 2600 IBM employees over an entire year. The guys monitored and analyzed various different aspects of the social network of these employees: Buddy lists, size & scope of their address books, social interactions. Here is how Shawn Achor describes the core findings of this study:
“(The researchers)… found that the more socially connected the IBM employees were, the better they performed. They could even quantify the difference: On average, every email contact was worth and added $948 in revenue. There in black and white is the power of social investment.”
Wow….interesting insights. Wouldn’t you agree?
1+1 = 4?
In a previous blog post I discussed how IBM Cognos 10 allows users to leverage the power of social networking. Using the latest Cognos 10 platform, we can collaborate around Business Analytics using the same techniques that we use on the popular platforms like Facebook, Flickr & Twitter. Most of you would probably agree that this is a powerful value proposition. And the findings make sense if you think about it: Business today is complex and finding solutions to problems is complex as well. The better networked we are, the easier we can pull relevant people into the problem solving process. And if all this is facilitated by technology, we can collaborate in real-time.
THE PATH TOWARDS HAPPINESS?
Over the past few months I did run into some skeptical people. They still regard social networking as ‘a thing that teenagers do’. But let’s face it: the way we communicate has been changed once again. Email did that a while ago. And this study shows that there is a tremendous benefit in expanding and using our social network. And if it’s not just about better job performance, how about increasing our own happiness? Now that is a unique value proposition, isn’t it?