The Horizon Graph

Should you have a Horizon Graph for your dashboard? When a new information visualization technique is invented, it’s interesting news. The ones that are worthwhile find themselves in our mental toolboxes and eventually on our dashboards. Sparklines, bullet graphs, treemaps come to mind as recent inventions of note.

When a new infomation visualization technique comes out and is lauded by Stephen Few, however, then it becomes not just interesting, but important! Stephen Few, author of Information Dashboard Design: The Effective Visual Communication of Data, is the developer of the bullet graph and considered one of the leading experts in the use of data visualization for analyzing and presenting quantitative business information.

Let’s have a look at a Horizon Graph. Click to enlarge the screenshot of the chart:

Horizon Graph Example

What???? That’s my initial reaction and I bet it’s yours too.

Let us allow Stephen Few to explain what we are looking at. First some background:

As Steve explains in his latest newsletter titled Time on the Horizon, the Horizon Graph was invented by the business intelligence software vendor Panopticon.

This is not a marketing piece for Panopticon, so I’ll say little about the company except that until recently its products exclusively featured a particular visualization called a treemap. For information about treemaps, I invite you to read an article that their inventor, Ben Shneiderman of the University of Maryland, wrote for my newsletter back in April 2006 titled “Discovering BI Using Treemaps.” The folks at Panopticon applied the potential of treemaps in several innovative and practical ways, and are now complementing their products with the addition of several traditional graphical displays (for example, bar and line graphs), including a few new variations on these themes. One of these variations is called a horizon graph.

Continue reading

Management Transparency through Dashboards

Enterprise Dashboard Topic: Xcelsius Dashboard Case Study from The Dashboard Spy

Unless we’re careful, we dashboard designers may fall into the trap of becoming ivory tower theorists. Isolated from the nitty gritty of real life, we would be unable to tie our dashboards to the real wants and needs of our users. How so? Well, in designing a dashboard, we explore several fields that rely heavily on theory and fundamentals: usability, cognitive behavior, information visualization, data graphing and representation, graphic design, etc. In all these fields, we avidly read the rules and practices espoused by the core group of experts (often opinionated, always persuasive!) and sometimes risk going overboard and putting theory before the flexibility required by actual users. It’s easy to think that we (or the gurus) know best, when, in actuality, it’s the users (yes – contentious statement).

To turn this thought into a case study with a real, implemented business dashboard, let’s consider the situation today regarding rising gasoline prices. Sure, it’s hurting all of us, but those people in states with higher gas taxes really feel the pinch. Take a look at this great listing of state sales, gas, cig and alc. taxes. The gas taxes are used in various ways. In fact, they typically go to a multitude of different state agencies to fund projects of all sorts.

It’s in times of rising prices (and short tempers) that tax payers demand visibility into how their tax dollars are being spent. Management transparency becomes an absolute requirement by the public. Of course, the web and the rise of management dashboards fit this need very well.

The Washington State Transportation Improvement Board (TIB) has taken a major step in terms of management transparency by putting onto their public website, an extensive performance dashboard. The TIB GMAP Dashboard was launched to the public on May 1, 2008 and provides visiblity of KPIs and metrics for the projects funded by their share of the tax revenue.

Getting back to the theme of real user needs versus ivory-tower thinking, this dashboard application shows the balance that can be struck between design principals and real-world contraints. It’s not the most “correct” BI dashboard implementation out there, but it will certainly be a hit with the users. The choice of Xcelsius and its flash-based interactivity has some nice glitz to it. While some charts and graphs may be better designed from an information visualization point of view, the level of utility is high. Check out the screenshot below of the use of sparklines to show historic trends – nice!.

After 4 years of internal use, user feedback and constant iteration, the team had confidence that the public would find not only great utility in the data, but a satisfaction from seeing how their tax dollars were being put to use. It took 4 years of evolution and listening to constituents that got the TIB to their current level of transparency. Good job!

Here is a screenshot of the Xcelsius dashboard:

Performance Dashboard for Transportation Project Management

If you are on the front page of the Dashboards By Example blog, be sure to click on the following “more” link to see the rest of this post as there will be a great video of this flash-based dashboard as well as more screenshots and business case documentation.

Continue reading

Video on the What, Who, How and Why of Enterprise Dashboards

An Enterprise Dashboard Video! This just out –  a Cnet news enterprise dashboards video segment by Shadan Malik, in which he white boards and discusses the basics of the what, who, how and whys of enterprise dashboards.

Well worth the 3 1/2 minutes to watch, this video provides a quick grounding of business intelligence dashboard basics. It’s a great shortcut to getting someone up to speed on the topic of enterprise dashboards or to someone on the IT side who needs to quickly articulate the business value and benefits of enterprise dashboards. The video explains the rationale and advantages of dashboards as well as a look at some implementation issues. I would rate this video as a “much-watch”.

This blog has long mentioned the Shadan Malik book, Enterprise Dashboards, Design and Best Practices for IT, as the only book available that focuses on the implementation of enterprise dashboards. The author has an excellent explanatory style that comes across both in the book and this quick video.

I’m excited by the growing exposure that enterprise dashboards is getting. I strongly believe in the visual orientation, user-centeredness, and business value of dashboards and look forward to their mass adoption as the face of business intelligence. Let’s all do our share in promoting the use of enterprise dashboards.

Shadan Malik Video on Enterprise Dashboards on CNET

Note: If your organization realizes the value of presenting metrics through dashboards but lack the in-house dashboard development knowledge, why not look in to the concept of OEM Dashboards?

Dashboard OEM is a concept where you simply use an off-the-shelf dashboard product such as that from Klipfolio to power your own dashboard project. Think of it as simply “embedded dashboards“.

Homework: Want to see a random sample enterprise dashboard screenshot from the largest collection of dashboards? You sure do!

Also: Who is Shadan Malik?

This from a profile found on the web:

Shadan Malik is the writer of the book Enterprise Dashboards: Design and Best Practices for IT and an architect at iViz Group. WIth 12 years of experience implementing, architecting and deploying business intelligence solutions and a breadth of experience in advance analytics, data warehousing and data visualization, he has worked with dozens of companies to architect and envision dashboard solutions such as scorecards, finance, operations, customer service, quality control and supply chain. He has two pending patents in the area of data visualization for dashboards, and he frequently speaks at various forums on the topic of best practices for enterprise dashboards.

Here is a sample of Mr. Malik’s thinking regarding the use of the “cockpit dashboard” metaphor:

David Nortonand Robert Kaplan draw the analogy between an aircraft dashboard and anorganizational need for similar information tools in their landmark book on the subject of Balanced Scorecards: Skilled pilots are able to process information from a large number of indica-tors to navigate their aircraft. Yet navigating today’s organizations throughcomplex competitive environments is at least as complicated as flying a jet.Why should we believe that executives need anything less than a full batteryof instrumentation for guiding their companies. Managers, like pilots, needinstrumentation about many aspects of their environment and performance tomonitor the journey toward excellent future outcomes.2If we agree that effective management of organizations requires informa-tion tools similar to those required by a pilot for flying an aircraft, we havea useful starting point to describe the basic characteristics of an organiza-tional dashboard. Contrary to the evident simplicity of an information dashboard, deployingan effective dashboard for a large organization is usually no less a complextask than doing the same for a jet. By no means do I mean to undermine thechallenge of developing cockpit dashboards handled by aeronautical engineers, but it would be fair to assume that all aircraft dashboards display the same set of key performance indicators (KPIs), such as the aircraft speed,altitude, direction, wind speed, humidity, fuel status, engine temperature, lat-itude, longitude, and so forth. The various aircraft manufacturers may havedifferent ergonomic designs for their dashboards, but essentially they allhave to deliver to the pilots the same set of KPIs critical for a successfulflight. The same applies to automotive dashboards. This leads to the ease ofreplication whereby an aircraft or automobile manufacturer may replicatethousands of dashboards in an assembly line to equip their aircrafts or cars,as the case may be.However, in contrast to an aircraft or automobile, each organization hasa set of KPIs that differs significantly from those of another organization.Even if two organizations are within the same industry or are close com-petitors, they rarely share an identical set of KPIs. Each organization’s busi-ness and organizational management has evolved differently, and eachdivision within a given organization has separate sets of KPIs relevant toitself. Finance, Supply Chain, Human Resources, Sales and Marketing—they all have their own set of KPIs that result in different types of dash-boards. Although many KPIs are commonplace and standard by definition,such as gross revenue, net profit, gross margin, asset turnover ratio, and soon, each organization has unique nuances of self-management. This diver-sity in evolution and need necessitates conducting a thorough and individu-alized requirements analysis in order to build customized and effectivedashboards for each organization. This provides a sharp contrast to the man-ufacture of thousands of cars and aircrafts with identical dashboards in an assembly-line process.

So who is the Dashboard Spy? No one really knows, but his growing collection of enterprise dashboard screenshots has captured the imagination of the executive dashboarding community. From excel dashboards and custom-built business scorecards, to xcelsius and flex-based visualizations, the dashboard screenshots at serve both as nuggets of inspiration and warnings of what not to do on an enterprise dashboard. These hits and misses will enlighten and entertain. Technology-neutral, and always business-driven, the Dashboard Spy website is the place to go to learn about the latest enterprise dashboard implementations.

Financial Dashboards – using Crystal Xcelsius to present views of Profit & Loss, Balance Sheet, Cash Flow

One of the easiest ways to create a slick dashboard is to use Crystal Xcelsius to portray your data, and the relationships between your data, in an interactive flash movie.  The output is an swf file that you can put on the web or stick into powerpoint, email or a word document. We’ve looked at a range of examples before and continue our tour of different implementations with this look at a Financial Dashboard demo from Previous examples from a multitude of sources have focused on what-if analysis functionality where you use sliders and dials to change parameters to see how that effects the totals. This example is much more of a read-only view where Crystal Xcelsius is used to display data in a usable fashion. Drop downs and tabs are the main navigation features. Visit the demo to experience the interface, but here are some dashboard screenshots for you to study. The main idea of the interface is that the line items in the table on the left can be visualized on the right side. When you click on a row, its corresponding chart appears on the right side of the dashboard. Below the chart are any notes that accompany the KPI.

Profit and Loss Financial Dashboard Xcelsius

Balance Sheet Dashboard Crystal Excelsius

Cash Flow Dashboard

Homework: What is Xcelsius? In a nutshell, it is a tool for the business user to front end an excel spreadsheet with an interactive flash movie. It’s totally drag and drop and produces a very slick interface. My favorite intro to Xcelsius continues to be the Crystal Xcelsius For Dummies book. And if you haven’t tried Business Object’s Crystal Xcelsius yet, go ahead and download the trial. I had some trouble running it on one of my machines, but it really works well on several others. The latest version has greatly appreciated UI improvments such as being able to embed any graphic image into the interface.

Note: You can easily embed dashboard interfaces into your corporate software offerings via embedded dashboards (OEM Dashboards) such as those from Klipfolio. Check them out at

So what or who is The Dashboard Spy? As his about page states, The Dashboard Spy is just a guy interested in the design of enterprise dashboards. He could not find any executive dashboard design source books (or even screenshots of real business dashboards) and so set about creating his own. Finally convinced to post his extensive collection of dashboard screenshots online, he was amazed to find how popular it has become. If you have a digital dashboard, balanced scorecard, or any business intelligence graphic to share, send an email to info _at_ Also check out The Dashboard Spy’s books on enterprise dashboards. His current favorite is Enterprise Dashboards: Design and Best Practices for IT, the only book on actually implementing executive dashboards.