7 Ways to Remain Relevant for Business Intelligence in 2010

This year, while saying “Happy New Year!”, I was also thinking “Good riddance!”. Face it, the year was a really rough one for many of you Dashboard Spy readers. Corporate earnings were horrible, revenues fell off a cliff, I.T. budgets got slashed, and many, many smart, hardworking people were downsized.

I personally attended goodbye lunch after goodbye lunch. The only good thing about them was the drinking!

Things were so bad in 2009, that even staffers on business intelligence related projects – previously thought to be resistant to cancellation – also lost their jobs.

Well, hang tight in 2010. While I can’t promise that things will turn around for your company, I can say that there are very specific steps you can take to make sure you remain a relevant, invaluable team member on business intelligence projects.

Here are my top 7 tips.

1. LEARN ALL YOU CAN ABOUT DASHBOARDS. I remain firmly committed to the idea that the dashboard design pattern is the optimal interface to all business intelligence applications. There is nothing like the “at-a-glance” nature of the dashboard to provide users with the smorgashboard of information they need to do their daily jobs. Dashboards have reached a critical mass. Why even President Obama uses an I.T. project dashboard to make sure that federal government I.T. spending is not out of control.

2. BE THE FIRST TO APPLY SUCCESSFUL SOLUTIONS FROM OTHER DOMAINS TO YOUR PROBLEM SPACE. There is no easier way to show your value in your enterprise than to be an innovator. In today’s economic climate, however, it doesn’t pay to take risks. Check out this clever, risk-free approach – look for things that are creating a splash in other domains, evaluate them to make sure they will add value in your space, and then be the first to introduce the technique. You will look like a hero. What do I mean? Look around in the web 2.0 space or the social media arena and identify innovative things there that you can suggest for your business intelligence application. As an example, perhaps your dashboard application would benefit from a “most popular metrics” section with KPIs voted upon by your community. As another example, look at http://klipfolio.com to see how business dashboards can be shown in a very innovative way by using the desktop widget approach.

3. KNOW YOUR COMPANY’S KEY PERFORMANCE INDICATORS. The easiest way to become familiar with the top issues across your enterprise is to learn each department’s metrics. By identifying the KPIs and then decomposing them into their constituent parts, you learn what makes your enterprise tick. I recommend this approach to everyone, but especially people new to a company or a department within an enterprise.

4. PUT YOUR USERS FIRST. Become the user champion within your project group. Everyone pays lip service to user requirements, but learn the principles of user-centric design and really embrace the user. Insist on plenty of mockups and hold frequent walk-throughs with lots of users. The success of your business intelligence project lies with the perception of your user community. Make them an early part of your development process and get early buy-in. There is no reason for waterfall methodologies in today’s environment. Your users demand a more agile approach. Give it to them.

5. UNDERSTAND THAT INFORMATION VISUALIZATION IS A SCIENCE. Turning data into information is difficult. Turning information into a format that your users can easily understand is even more difficult. Understand the need for true expertise in data visualization. Don’t just slap pie charts all over your dashboards and applications. Find an expert or start studying the subtle do’s and don’t of information visualization. Not only can poor data visualization practices aggravate your users, it can cause wrong decisions to be made based on misleading cues in your application.

6. DON’T GO IT ALONE – WE ARE A COMMUNITY! Long gone are the days of solo practitioners trailblazing their way through early business intelligence techniques and technologies. Business intelligence and dashboarding resources abound these days. Learn from your fellow B.I. experts the best practices that will ensure the success of your project. Start with http://dashboardspy.com/experts and http://enterprise-dashboard.com.

7. REVISIT YOUR BUY VERSUS BUILD ANALYSIS. It’s not a cut and dried decision. Many excellent arguments exist for buying a business dashboard package off the shelf, building your dashboard application, or taking a hybrid approach where you combine the best of both worlds and customize an existing product. With the economy the way it is, and the prevalence of outsourcing, you can get great value when it comes to hiring talent. Advances in user interface programming allow for easy creation of compelling UI elements into your application. Of course, on the other hand, the off-the-shelf business intelligence dashboard and reporting packages are stronger than ever. What I’m saying is that at the start of this new year, you shouldn’t take any of your past decisions for granted. Revisit everything in light of our current situation and make the appropriate decisions.

A very happy new year from Hubert Lee, The Dashboard Spy!

Switching Dashboards

The title of today’s Dashboards By Example post, “Switching Dashboards” has a double meaning. It’s true that many business intelligence users are switching to desktop dashboards because of the benefits of the “immediacy” of data when it’s on your personal desktop. I’ve posted in the past about the use of the desktop dashboard by Allan Wille and his team of dashboarding gurus at Klipfolio, Inc as an “unavoidable dashboard” device (see item #3 in 5 Hot Dashboard Topics of 2009).

The other, more literal, meaning of the phrase switching dashboards arose in a discussion I had with a Dashboard Spy reader over how to design a “switching mechanism” for users to toggle between different dashboards. I’ve personally used the old dropdown selector and the subnav styling (Dashboard 1 | Dashboard 2 | Dashboard 3) as switches between dashboards. The reader wanted a more novel approach and, again, the Klipfolio Dashboard came to mind. Specifically, the Dashboard Demo Assistant that comes with the Klipfolio demo download.

What do I mean? If you’ve tried the latest version of the Klipfolio Dashboard 5.1 software, you’ll know that there are several different dashboards that come with the download. You use the Dashboard Demo Assistant not only to control and configure each of the dashboards, but also to toggle between the dashboards. Download and install the demo to see how it works.

It’s a very cool solution to switching dashboards. I created a Dashboard Spy video of my adventures with the Klipfolio demo.

A reader wrote recently asking why I haven’t produced any Dashboard Spy videos as of late, so here you go. And, yes, of course I included the Dashboard Spy theme song.

Watch for how the Dashboard Demo Assistant is used to load the different dashboards. Also, if you haven’t tried Klipfolio lately, this new version is simply awesome. Make sure to take a look at the new sparkline charting capability. I’ll post more in upcoming posts about Klipfolio. It’s grown into quite a compelling dashboard platform. Meanwhile, enjoy this video:

Regards Hubert Lee, The Dashboard Spy

PS. If you like videos about business intelligence dashboards, be sure to check out dashboards.tv at this link:

Dashboards

Tags: Klipfolio 5.1, Dashboard Design, Klipfolio Dashboard, Klipfolio Demo, sparklines, desktop dashboards, dashboard spy videos, klipfolio dashboards

Taking Data Chart Minimalism Too Far

Show the data and nothing but the data, right? We’ve all seen the trend towards minimalism in our charts and graphs. Sometimes this results in business dashboards populated by mysterious and tiny scratchings that only a true data visualization expert can understand.

In the recent issue of his Visual Business Intelligence Newsletter: Sometimes We Must Raise Our Voices, Stephen Few explains what he calls a “rare disagreement” with the principles of graph design as espoused by Edward Tufte (See The Visual Display of Quantitative Information
).

Few begins with an explanation of the title of this issue:

When we create a graph, we design it to tell a story. To do this, we must fi rst fi gure out what the story is. Next, we must make sure that the story is presented simply, clearly, and accurately, and that the most important parts will demand the most attention. When we communicate verbally, there are times when we need to raise our voices to emphasize important points. Similarly, when we communicate graphically, we must find ways to make the important parts stand out visually.

He then tells the importance of Edward Tufte’s work on his own career path.

My original thinking about graph design was formed almost entirely by the work of Edward Tufte. I owe him not only for the formative development of my knowledge, but also for inspiring me to pursue this line of work in the first place. I left his one-day seminar over 10 years ago with my mind ablaze and my heart beginning to nourish the kernel of an idea that eventually grew into my current profession. Even after many years of working in the field of data visualization, which has involved a great deal of experience and study that has expanded my expertise into many areas that Tufte hasn’t specifically addressed, I have only on rare occasions discovered reasons to disagree with any of his principles. The topic that I’m addressing in this article, however, deals with one of those rare disagreements.

Now, isn’t that an interesting setup? Steve’s writing is always superb and the reason why I subscribe to his newsletter. Visit the Perceptual Edge site for details.

Getting back to the disagreement with Tufte, Few has some issues with carrying the idea of minimalism too far. He explains Tufte’s concept of keeping the Data-Ink Ratio high and minimizing Non-Data ink on a chart.

Data Ink Ratio

There are 2 graph design principles closely related to the Data Ink Ratio concept.

Erase non-data ink (within reason)
Erase redundant data-ink (within reason)

Few is in complete agreement with the first rule, but has problems with the second rule about erasing redundant data-ink.

He presents a series of charts based on Tufte examples where he shows the danger of taking the minimalist approach too far. Each successive chart shows an increasing level of minimalism (is that me speaking in an extremely backassward way or what?)

Ed tufte chart

Tutfe Few Graphs

Tufte minimal chart

Stephen Few demonstrates Tufte Data Ink Concept

and here is an alternative by Stephen Few:

Clear data visualization by Stephen Few

Read his post for his explanations of why Tufte’s charts may take data-ink redundancy removal too far.

Tags: Data Visualization, Stephen Few, Edward Tufte

Dashboards

The Uber Art of Dashboards

The “art of dashboards”? Sounds trite and a stretch, but let the Dashboard Spy explain. We’ve heard it said that art is the expression of ideas, right? That it is a form of communication between people. One in which the artist understands and uses to his or her advantage the sensibilities of the audience to both inform opinion and shape ideas.

Well, that certainly sounds like what we do every day with business intelligence, doesn’t it? Business dashboards have the ability to not only to report metrics and KPIs, but to do so in a manner that shapes opinion, influences action and strikes varying tones of urgency. BI metrics may be cut and dry (and that is a debatable statement), but the communication of the meaning of the metrics is an art.

Business dashboarding is a highly visual medium. One that relies on basic human perceptions and principles of cognition. It is also an information-dense medium, in which the nuances of information presentation are tied closely with the ability of the dashboard designers to competently capture and express the metrics and their meaning. A screen full of icons, red/green/yellow indicators, pie charts, bar graphs, blinking alerts and data tables may only obfuscate the true message when presented wrong. We’ve all seen poorly designed dashboards that assault the business user to the point of numbness.

The reason I’m on this riff on the art of dashboards is because of some very interesting materials that a Dashboards By Example reader shared with me. Want to see some artifacts of a dashboard design team that clearly knows the art of expression through a business dashboard? Thanks to Andres, the solution architect at UberBI, a start-up company that produces business dashboards, we have this look at some wireframes, screenshots and even an interactive demo.

Take a look at this great hand-drawn wireframe:

business dashboard wireframe from Uber

And here’s an example of a final look and feel of the interface:

Sales Dashboard - Flash Dashboards from Uber

Gorgeous work, isn’t it?

We’ll detail some of the project infromation but first, let’s take a look at more project artifacts:

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