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Visualization: Managing a business is not the same as driving a car

by Karel van der Poel, Mirror42 Thursday, July 29, 2010

In the last decade Business Intelligence vendors ran a feature race. Their focus was not how to best visualize your business data, but how to deliver the most sexy BI sales demo.

We have all seen examples of this type of ‘sales functionality’: Interactive gauges where the needles moves if you select a month, 3d stacked bars with multiple metrics in one graph, 3D pie charts with more then 6 colors and 4 area’s that are more or less the same size, dashboards where all data is updated when you move your mouse on the screen. Great for marketing, but useless when trying to manage a business.

Choosing the right visualization of your data is important when you are trying to get your dashboards adopted. Sexiness might get you some initial response, but if you want to ensure that people actually use the dashboard, you might want to take a look at the following 4 tips.

  1. Our brain is trained 2 dimensional.

    • Books, maps, directions, computer screens, car navigation systems. The human brain is quick to understand 2 dimensional information. Don’t waste brainpower with fancy 3 dimensional graphs where the third dimension does not add any information but is only there because “it looks good”.
  2. Managing a business is not the same as driving a car.

    • Anyone can drive a car, but not anyone can manage a business.

      Speedometers, meters, gauges… they should be avoided when building business dashboards. It not about how much cash you have left, its about did your cash position improve or decline!

      Managing a business is about comparing performance month by month, quarter by quarter, evaluating improvements and declines. If you have to hover with your mouse to see multiple periods, why not simply show the periods in a trend line so you can compare?
  3. Eat pie, don’t chart them,

    • Pie charts do not work well with the human brain. Can you see the difference between a 6.5% and a 7.2% area in a Pie Chart? Probably not. A better representation is a series of bars from top to bottom so the human eye can quickly see that the 7.2% has a higher top then the 6.5%.
  4. Don’t make me wear sunglasses in the office

    • Avoid to many colors. Colorful is not easy on the eyes and tends to blur the big picture. Add color to identify direction or offsets from targets. Also keep in mind that your dashboards or reports often need to be printed in black and white.

I hope these tips help you to build powerful and easy to understand KPI visualizations

About the Author

Karel van der Poel is a high-tech Entrepreneur. He is co-founder and CEO of KPI Library a business community for business manager, vendors and consultants who have an interest in Corporate Performance Management. Karel also is the founder and CEO of Mirror42, a software company focused on IT Performance Management.

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