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A Call to Arms for BI Professionals and Dashboard Vendors
Op Ed

by Alexander 'Sandy' Chiang, Research Director, Dashboard InsightWednesday, September 14, 2011

I am declaring war on poorly designed dashboards. I have thrown down the gauntlet and I need everyone’s support. My July interview with dashboard design and data visualization expert Stephen Few inspired me to start this war. In this interview, Stephen Few talked about poor dashboard design practices, including the overzealous use of speedometers, 3D charts, and other data visualization faux pas. As part of my new direction with Dashboard Insight, I want to stop this proliferation of poor dashboards. However, to win this war, I will need the help of BI professionals and dashboard vendors to spread the word and promote best practices.

The First Battles

The Speedometer Impasse

I'll be the first to admit that I have used speedometers in dashboards in the past. The truth is that people like them.  They are familiar and therefore easy to read. However, I've always tried to keep the design clean and no larger than required to easily see the needle and its target.

Figure 1: The design evolution of gauges from inefficiently sized circular gauges to quarter gauges to bullet graphs

Ideally, you should replace your speedometers (or gauges) with visualizations like bullet graphs and, where applicable, horizontal bar charts. If you have a client who is adamant about speedometers, one way to approach the problem is to start off by presenting what they want.  When new data is required for the dashboard (which inevitably will happen), you can make the argument you can’t fit anymore data on the dashboard. At this point, you can make the argument that these gauges need to go. They take up too much space and better visualizations will not only provide more information but require fewer dashboards and therefore cost less.

The Styling Clash

“We need lots of color, background images, and 3D charts to make our dashboards look beautiful.”  If you have ever heard this from a client, you are not alone. Truth be told, you can make dashboards look beautiful without sacrificing readability. To convince the client, make your first dashboard look hideous by overusing these effects. Anything they see after this will be perfect!

In all seriousness, it just takes practice and creativity to make attractive dashboards without making them loud and 3D. If in doubt, check out Dashboard Insight's featured dashboard gallery for inspiration.

Flanking the Animation Requirement

If you have experience presenting with PowerPoint or another slideshow program, you probably know that the vast majority of people hate animations. If your client has provided these types of animations as a requirement for your dashboards, the best way to convince them otherwise is to give them exactly what they want.  Create the dashboard mock-ups and then place them in a Powerpoint presentation, making use of ridiculous animations between slides. Afterwards, ask them what they think of the animations. I am confident the requirement will be removed.

For Software Vendors

During a client’s evaluation of your software, clients will ask for dials, 3D charts, and other fun widgets in your software offering. In addition, you produce dashboards that incorporate these widgets in order to market these features. Working as a product manager for a dashboard vendor in the past, I understand the need for this from a business perspective, as this gets the attention you need. Regardless, dashboard software should make it easy for people to incorporate dashboard design best practices. Suggestions include:

  • Providing visualizations like sparklines and bullet graphs out-of-the-box
  • Creating templates or default layouts that are simple, clear and beautiful
  • Creating functional, visually appealing dashboards in your marketing campaigns

Our Battle Begins

I wrote this editorial because we have come to the point in business intelligence where we have access to more data than ever before. The marketing buzz word out there right now is “Big Data” and, beyond the marketing hype, it poses a serious problem for dashboard designers. It is even more imperative now to efficiently and correctly communicate data. Otherwise, we will lose the necessary insight to make informed decisions.
I asked you to join my war against poorly designed dashboards, and I hope to fight alongside you. Together, we can start turning data into knowledge.

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Michael Boyarski said:

I think Stephen Few says it best, 'We are overwhelmed by information, not because there is too much, but because we don't know how to tame it.' Its not always the tool that gets in the way of better information understanding and sharing. Vendors can improve this yes, but the visual side of information design also needs to be considered a strategic investment for organizations. Info design should be standard coursework at undergrad and grad programs. Journalists at NYT, BBC, USA Today, and others are getting better engagement with viewership via infographs, this same principle holds true for businesses. In the age of data, there should be more visual design career development options for BI users, and it should be "sold" based on the value that improved info consumption has on decision-making. Again, Stephen has some courses here, but there needs to be more.

Alexander 'Sandy' Chiang said:

@Michael - you are right. There needs to be more learning material provided by educational institutions to teach people on data visualization techniques. I think organizations spend so much time trying to prepare data for reporting that they forget an equally important aspect of business intelligence - presenting the data in a clear, meaningful way. Let's hope business programs start making data visualization a core part of their curriculum.

dawn holmes said:

Why does everyone accept the argument that speedometers are used because they are familiar? What about thermometers? They are familiar and have been used by church fundraisers and the like as public dashboards for years. In my view, they are just an early version of bullet charts.

So I'm with you and in for the battle - having devoured Mr Few's books before designing my first dashboard, they really struck a chord and I haven't looked back since!

Alexander 'Sandy' Chiang said:

@dawn - that's a good perspective on speedometers and thermometers. They are the ancestors of bullet graphs. Unlike our Cro-Magnon relatives, they evolved but these types of visualizations are persistent. Single value / comparator visualizations need to be leaner than their distant relatives.

Hrvoje Smolic said:

Alexander, I'm totally with you in this fight. I started something similar on my blog; Furthermore, my company is developing a BI reporting tool with strong accent on data visualization best principles. We want to have a product that will not let you make nonfunctional report (no 3d charts, no chart transparency etc...)

Alexander 'Sandy' Chiang said:

@Hrvoje - I'm glad to hear your joining the fight. I'm sure our readers would be very interested in learning about your product in the future.

Hrvoje Smolic said:

@Alexander Thanks, we will try!

Scott Eaton said:

I agree with you, Alexander. I have read the Stephen Few books and the concepts in their were used to set the develpment standards for all our dashboards and scorecards at my organization. Quality should not be sacrificed for Glitz.

a mat said:

Hi, I would like to get an idea of the software (programming languages, interfaces) used to develop BI tools.

Alexander 'Sandy' Chiang said:

@a mat, can you be more specific? I.e. are you looking for development software (.NET, Java, PHP, etc.) to build BI tools or are you looking for full BI tools to build data warehouses / dashboards / reports etc.?

a mat said:

Sandy, I would like to get some input on development software used to build current BI tools .

Alexander 'Sandy' Chiang said:

@a mat - from what I gather, the majority of dashboard tools render into web friendly technologies such as HTML, HTML5, PHP, JSP, etc. However, the design environments are typically desktop applications, so I'm guessing there is a mixture of technologies being used. C++ / .NET WinForms for the desktop applications and ASP.NET / Silverlight / HTML5 / JSP for the viewing side. Does that help you answer your question?

a mat said:

Sandy - Thanks for the info .

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