A Hobbits Tale … My journey in dashboards: From Flashy to Few and back again …

I’m trying to weave two paths in this blog post.. 

My personal journey in data visualisation (and in particular designing dashboards) and how this aligns to my experiences in dashboard projects.

What is a journey?

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To me a journey is travelling from one point to another with endless possibilities in between.  Sometimes it’s easy, other times hard and often muddy along the way.

My dashboard journey started when I built my first one for a customer using what was then called Xcelsius.  Like a lot of people who start working in a new technology area I started reading books, blogs and frequented Twitter. I swallowed the academic view of “What is a dashboard?” hook line and sinker and was (and you could say I still am) heavily influenced by the work of Stephen Few.  I even spent 3 days with Mr Few when he delivered a training course in London where he critiqued one of my dashboard designs in public forum, but that’s another story.

 Crossroads

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Over the last few years I have been involved in a number of dashboard projects and as part of them facilitated design workshops.  I would normally kick these design workshops off with a data visualisation best practice session to align (you could say influence) the iterative design process.  This often put me on a crossroads … Do you follow the world’s view of a dashboard which is often influenced by the popular media, bold and attention grabbing. Or do you follow the academic view which I would summarise as information rich but visually poor.  I always found this a balancing act full of compromises and yes, I have designed dashboards with pie charts on them in the past!

My personal journey has taken me from back in 2010 when I commented the following:

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At that point in time I truly couldn’t comprehend why a software vendor would add an exploded 3D pie chart to their chart library.  Did I miss something at that time? Maybe.

A few days ago I posted this.

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 What changed?

I have been on a journey getting muddy boots along the way.

Fast forward to today

In the three years between these Twitter posts there has been significant innovation and advancement in and how we all interact with technology.  The world of Twitter, Facebook and iPhone apps have become mainstream.

Has our method of acquiring and consuming information changed as well during that time?

How would you find out the weather forecast for tomorrow?

  • Do you ask Siri “Will I need my umbrella tomorrow?”
  • Read the morning newspaper
  • Watch the TV forecast
  • Listen to a radio
  • Use an app on your smartphone

What do you do ?

For those of you who have heard me speak at the UKI SAP User Group data visualisation SIG or at conferences you may well have heard me suggest the following.

“The first dashboard you build and release to users will change over time.  Your data visualisation skills will develop and users will, over time, ask for more actionable information in the precious space (real estate) available to them”.

I often see this happen not only during the development iterations of a dashboard but it can also be true as users engage with the same dashboard daily, weekly, monthly.

What is the journey of man creating “ART”?

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I am no art critic but our appreciation of art has changed from the earliest of times to now.  You could also say beauty is in the eye of the beholder and this often differs in cultures and sub cultures.

 SAP’s Dashboard Journey (an outsiders view)

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Circa 2004

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Circa 2008

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2013

 An example of a real Dashboard Journey

A customer, fellow SAP user group SIG chair and friend of mine has allowed me to share elements of the dashboard journey at his organisation, which still isn’t completed as I see drafts of new versions each time we meet to chat over.

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This is a great example of where I have commented above “The first dashboard you build and release to users will change over time.  Your data visualisation skills will develop and users will over time ask for more actionable information in the precious space (real estate) available to them”.

What does your Dashboard Journey look like?

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 In closing

I have read two great quotes in the past few months:

  •  Mico Yuk “Make ‘User Adoption’ your ONLY KPI to Measure BI Success”
  • Donald MacCormick “To put it more bluntly, employing the mantra “adoption trumps visual efficiency” will see you gain much, much more than you lose.”

I agree with the sentiment of both these quotes but I would also suggest that adding best practice data visualisation techniques into dashboards is a worthwhile leg to the journey.

My dashboard journey has now taken me to the point where I agree that you should start with the focus on adoption by making the dashboard “sticky” and encouraging users to return.  But I would go on and suggest that after this stage the journey should continue.

Take away

In delivering easy to consume, information rich, actionable insights maximising the use of the real estate available on the consumption device you stand the greatest chance of adoption by the “floating” users.

Finally, a real life example…  When building a dashboard for a Proof of Concept last year I was asked to include the XGlobe from Antivia on a second tab in the dashboard. “Why?” I asked. “It’s cool, the users will love it!”

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9 thoughts on “A Hobbits Tale … My journey in dashboards: From Flashy to Few and back again …

  1. Great post, thanks.

    I myself have been heavily influenced by the works of Prof. E. Tufte and Stephen Few. I also love most of J. Ive’s design work at Apple and admire D. Ram’s design work for Braun.. anyway back to the blog.
    I believe simplicity, purity, and focus are some of the important ingredients in the secret sauce to turn “a” design” into “a good” design. It astonishes me when people still use gauges or 3-d charts, this is so 80s ; -). There are initiatives being driven by SAP employees advertising a more “form follows function” approach, see: LAVA, and it remains to be seen how heavily this really will influence SAP’s vision of visualization in the time to come.
    Other areas making or breaking a dashboard though are often overlooked: data quality, intuitive workflow within the seamless framework of the dashboard (think drilling into detail data or even into live OLTP/ERP/CRM data or triggering actions from within your dashboard), performance and finally the “holy grail” of statistical analysis.

    Indeed, the journey has been exciting, and it remains to be seen where it will lead, say in five years. I am sure to be around keeping an eye on it , -)

  2. Pingback: What Does the Fox Say?

  3. Great article. At the end of the day our dashboards / apps and how we design them are heavily influenced by the technology and design that we use every day as consumers. Things are getting more simplistic which grants limited space to differentiate visually. Exploding pie charts and tag clouds are gimmicks rather than innovation, so I appreciate that the community is finally embracing and pushing back on SAP.

    Only the guys at Roambi seem to exercise the care and attention to visual design that is in-step with Apple.

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