Tuesday, 26 January 2010

Visualising Empires Decline

I was intrigued when I saw this visualisation.

It is definitely aesthetically pleasing, but is it something that would form part of a Business Intelligence Dashboard?

Well, quite possibly, I could see this being an extension to the age old Bubble Chart, but with the dimension of time included and the evolution or devolution of categories perhaps.

From what I can gather, this is mainly an experimentation with soft bodies using toxi's verlet springs and the the data refers to the evolution of the top 4 maritime empires of the 19th and 20th centuries by extent. The visual emphasis is on their decline.

More on that project here:


And more generally here:


The question is, does it provide a clear use to the Dashboarding world for Business Intelligence or is it squarely in the Art world and no further.

Personally I like it, and if nothing else, it's got me thinking about where the world of Visualisation is heading.

Until next time...

Tuesday, 5 January 2010

And yes, this applies to Xcelsius 2008!

Firstly, this is thoroughly safe to view at work.

Secondly, I have no idea who made it.

Thirdly, what this lady says in conclusion applies to all SAP BusinessObjects products.

...and that includes Xcelsius 2008.

NOTE: This video was recently pulled from YouTube for breaching SAP AG copyright. I still remain unaware of who created the video if you did catch it...

Sunday, 3 January 2010

Dashboards Centre from SAP BusinessObjects

Firstly, let me wish you a Happy New Year for 2010!

Not only a new year, but a new decade where we exit what some called the "noughties" and enter what some have already coined the "teenies". Whatever the name we all agree or disagree on, the rise and rise of Business Intelligence (BI) over my last decade at BusinessObjects and now at SAP BusinessObjects is undeniable.

For me, the main reason for BI becoming so popular is that it is so intrinsically linked to what has been the number one priority for C-Level executives for some time; Business Process Transformation. Without good BI, a business cannot make agile, accurate, efficient or effective decisions, and cannot hope to link their strategy with effective and efficient execution.

The very real need for a line of sight for each and every employee to identify what they can do to directly and positively impact an organisations strategy through to execution has become a reality we can't afford to ignore. Doing so will give our BI savvy competition a fantastic gift; a distinct business advantage.

When I began with BusinessObjects in 2000, we had around 4 products; Supervisor, Designer, the eponymously named full client query, reporting and analysis product, BusinessObjects and the new kid on the block; WebIntelligence. We've come a long way and now cover such a depth and breadth of BI with our platform that irrespective of whether your data is internal, external, owned by you or not, whether it is structured or unstructured, we have the ability to place it in the hand of the consumer in whatever means they wish.

But, there is still a long way to go for many organisations to make the line of sight between strategy and its execution a given rather than an aspiration.

Technology alone cannot help. It needs to be an enabler rather than technology for technologies sake.

As the message of good dashboard design spreads, hand in hand with some of the stronger partner offerings such as Antivia's XWIS (www.antivia.com), the community that once was just a handful of early adopters now is flourishing. With Twitter, Facebook and a variety of other social networking sites are becoming so popular that they can't be ignored as merely a spare time distraction, groups like Xcelsius Gurus www.twitter.com/XcelsiusGurus present an online community that microblogged, amongst other things, almost instantaneous feedback on the latest service pack (SP3 at time of writing) as soon as it was released. Is this dashboarding at the speed of thought? If not, it's certainly tending towards it!

Well, to kick off my New Year, I wanted to tell you about the new addition to the Dashboards Centre site (www.dashboardscentre.com) from SAP BusinessObjects.

In the Video section (www.dashboardscentre.com/videos.php), there is a 30 minute presentation I put together where I uncover some often overlooked approaches to designing dashboards that really deliver on their potential by focusing on a fundamental goal – Communication.

You can directly view this video here www.dashboardscentre.com/video/video2 where I present some practical, hands-on guidance on identifying areas for improvement and avoiding some of the pitfalls of dubious dashboard design!

This video doesn't seek to look at the mechanics of connecting live data to a dashboard, or the technicalities of setting up something like a hierarchical drop down. It's really focused on helping communication within a BI Dashboarding sphere and to push towards making that line of sight between strategy and its execution a reality.

Monday, 27 July 2009

Dashboard Design Danny Davis Style

Danny Davis isn't a man to mess with when it comes to designing Dashboards and this one is the latest in a long line of class acts from someone that really does deserve the title of Xcelsius Guru.

Let's take a look at Danny's latest efforts here and see his style in action.

There is a great deal of information on this Profit & Loss dashboard, but it isn't overly busy. Danny has kept his non-data pixels to a minimum. White space separates the various sections of the dashboard. Clever use of colour contributes to this with hues seen being muted in each section. Scanning the dashboard quickly reveals everything that needs attention. Use of SpingGraphs and Bullet Charts is completely appropriate and allows the information to be consumed pre-attentively and at a glance.

White space alone has been used to delineate and group data. Borders, grid lines, and background fill colors are unnecessary and would busy the screen. He's made a sensible design choice to have a single help button to give instructions and descriptions that will not be needed beyond the first few views.

So what more than good dashboard design is there here?

Well, check out the hover overs all over this dashboard giving just a little more information at each point.

Click on the word "VPM" for Versus Previous Month Data being selectable. Sometimes you just don't want all RAG indicators to be shown as they can be overly busy on screen. This in my opinion is a particularly clever design choice.

Drop downs in most sections mean comparison is possible to other Divisions, Months and Countries. At the top we have the ability to let he dashboard show these months and Divisions scan through with the play button and the FFWD and RWD buttons. What about the Countries though? Another layer reveals itself for that...

Bottom Right, by the P&L by Country is a small Globe. Click this and the top of the screen alters with Dynamic visibility to reveal a mashup with Yahoo Maps focused on Europe but also a slowly spinning globe to allow you to pick alternative geographical locations. click the small Globe to hide this again.

Two tick boxes at the top (Show News etc.) and the bottom right (Contribution or KPI) further embellish this dashboard but in such a pleasant and subtle way as to add to it not make it heavily weighted towards the embellishments. Despite my inherent dislike of Pie Charts, the overall execution really works for me.

Finally, the typical consumer of P&L information, the Finance Team, will undoubtedly want to see the raw figures. Clicking on the on/off Sheet View / Scorecard button at the top right reveals exactly that.

For these and many other subtleties I haven't mentioned, you will appreciate just navigating around this dashboard, I've got to doff my cap in Danny's direction. A job well done and a lesson to us all in good design practices.

Few (!) could argue with that.

Until next time....

Varik Torsteinsen - July 2009

Tuesday, 30 June 2009

SAP BusinessObjects Explorer in Action

Since I last wrote, I've been focused on some of SAP BusinessObject's latest technology that is certainly adjunct to BI Dashboards and directly relevant to Data Visualisation; SAP BusinessObjects Explorer.

SAP BusinessObjects Explorer (or just Explorer as I'll refer to it for brevity from now on) combines the simplicity and speed of search with the trust and analytical power of BI to provide immediate answers to business questions. Users employ familiar keyword searches to find information and explore directly on data.

It's true that SAP are bringing simplicity and ease-of-use to business users that
enable them to find relevant information and answers quickly and easily, but this isn't a search solution. Explorer goes further than simple search technology. The solution lets people to easily search for and retrieve information as a first step, and then intelligently explore that data.

With the ability to search and explore data, you could investigate a hunch, determine whether it's factual and chart the appropriate plan of action. Business users can also use visualisation features to turn that information into the appropriate chart – selecting the visualisation and format that best represents the information. The solution also lets people share findings and results with other
business users. They can export findings, send a link, and bookmark the results
of their data exploration.

To let all of you Dashboarders see this in action I put together a quick 10 minute video so you can see this fantastic technology in action. It's best viewed in full screen and in HD. And yes, this really is my voice as I demonstrate the technology!

I'd welcome thoughts and feedback on this and how relevant you feel it might be for those Dashboard consumers that you work so hard to serve with your efforts.

New at the time of writing is my personal twitter page http://twitter.com/varikt which although not BI Dashboard and Visualisation focused is a good way to find out what I'm up to day to day.

Until next time,

Tuesday, 17 February 2009

Pac-Man, "Bling" and the power of simplicity in BI Dashboards

It’s hard to argue against the requirement for every Business Intelligence professional to display the fundamental competency of efficient and effective communication. As I began in my previous post, this skill appears to take on even more importance when employing visual media in a BI Dashboard.

If you, like me grew up in 80’s and 90’s exposed to video games, music television, gadgets and technology generally, the addictively playable nature of Pac-Man on the Atari 2600, Tetris on the Nintendo Game Boy and my eventual giving in and buying a Nintendo Wii (despite thinking I was past buying video games consoles in my thirties) all testify to a common end: Simple is particularly compelling… if the underlying idea is sound, and it’s packaged (and marketed) correctly.

Today, solid demand for Nintendo’s Wii appears to continue; despite some pretty uncertain economic times playing out and Apple continues to add to its customer base regardless of the rest of the sector struggling. If you are an owner of Apple’s iPod Touch, it’s pretty likely you were attracted to it on a number of levels; the slim nature of the device, it’s minimalist exterior design and the general ambience of “cool” that seems to pervade all of their products and stores. I’ll bet that even if those and other unmentioned external factors didn’t persuade you to part with your hard earned money, a touch screen user interface that starts with that first finger swipe from left to right to unlock it probably had you hooked. Have you ever needed to read the instruction manual for the iPod? No, probably not. The user interface is almost universally recognized as being uncannily intuitive – something that didn’t come about by luck or chance. It isn’t that long ago that my FiancĂ©’s parents were jostling us for top scores on the Wii Sports Bowling, and they are not traditionally the video game types; simplicity again shining through. Is this one of the fundamental differences between a sale and no sale?

I love this quote by comedian Marcus Brigstocke (often misattributed to a CEO of Nintendo). It has a resonance that is difficult in which to not see the irony:

"Computer games don't affect kids, I mean if Pac Man affected us as kids, we'd all be running around in darkened rooms, munching pills and listening to repetitive music."

The “munching pills” aside, repetitive music is often seen as pretty simple once you peel back to its core elements, but its popularity doesn’t look like dropping off anytime soon. There isn’t a mutual exclusivity to enjoying repetitive music and much more complex musical arrangements, but there is something that hooks you with its simplicity that is more than just a little primal.

So by my (probably flawed) rationale, a mixture of a simple user interface design masking some incredibly sophisticated & powerful behind the scenes technology that you implicitly trust delivering an efficient and effective message appears to have a fair chance of getting buy in on a large scale because the potential impact to an individual is likely to be significant.

If we return to the original focus of this particular blog; that of Good Dashboard Design practices and Visual Presentation Media set in a Business Intelligence context, this rationale is firmly reliant on a “flawless” execution of this potential, and is often (sadly) where things come unstuck. I plan to write more on User Adoption of BI Dashboards in a future posting; this is a point important enough to warrant a post all to itself.

But let’s get back to the world of BI and explore this potent idea of simplicity mixed with good dashboard design practices further.

If you’ve had exposure to Operational Reporting with the likes of Crystal Reports or Query, Reporting & Analysis with Business Objects Web Intelligence, you’ll have become very used to Tables of numbers and text with perhaps some relatively limited visual display media. But, with as many as 85% of corporate Business Users reported to not be confident using BI query and analysis tools, there is an undisputed need for a simpler way to communicate an efficient and effective message about what is happening to the key metrics in the area of business you’re personally interested in, that of well designed BI Dashboards.

There are a number of purists that would advocate stringently adhering to an extensive list of best practices when designing an efficient and effective dashboard. Think how many times have you happened on a dashboard (or perhaps even created one) that is the stereotypical 4 equal sized areas in a two by two configuration, with a chart (let’s say a bar chart) in the top left, a Pie chart (say) in the top right, a Line Graph in the bottom left and then (shock horror) an Area chart in the bottom right area. You can almost tell that the 4th chart was only chosen because the designer felt that it would look better if all the charts were different. Although there is nothing fundamentally wrong with a 2 by 2 style dashboard, this approach to the content; this “sleep-dashboarding” (kind of like sleep-walking but… well you get the picture) certainly shows a need to understand and encourage best practices.

Aside from their interesting use in Micro Charting, I must confess my dislike of Pie Charts for anything other than 4 or less pieces of pie (they really don’t convey the comparison of part-to-whole data as well as a Bar Chart). I’ve floated this purist approach before, at first introduction sessions with prospective audiences for BI Dashboards. Despite my feeling quietly confident that they would profess their undying appreciation of best practice’s finer subtleties coming together, they, instead, display the kind of shoulder-shrugging indifference not seen since they were given the choice between a Bar Chart and a Column Chart to visualize a key metric. Yet, if I show them a Spinning XGlobe without even fully explaining where it is used appropriately at the same juncture, the difference is staggering. Interest is attained for a sufficiently long enough period of time. The inflated expectation is paid off with a visual reward. There is a palpable sense that you have earned the right to continue showing what is often referred to around these parts as “bling” (a lovely hip hop slang term which refers to expensive jewelry and other accoutrements). But wait, surely showing dashboards that may well be exciting to look at flies in the face of good dashboard design principles? Dashboards aren’t about exciting, they’re about communicating the information you need to achieve your business objectives. As this isn’t territory to stay purely in for too long, we may be justified. That isn’t saying that the spinning globe example from Donald doesn’t have its place or that it represents poor design, it doesn’t, but may not feature in as many well designed BI dashboards as a Bullet Chart or a Sparkline.

In simple (the overall theme here of course) terms, the purist best practices when designing an efficient and effective dashboard could be seen to represent one end of a single continuum where a “blinging” dashboard could well be interpreted as the other end. Introducing dashboards to a potential consumer or purchaser by only showing the purist form may not excite and entertain those that require dashboards, but by winning that privilege, by initially paying off an implied need to see exciting dashboards, we can then move to show BI Dashboard best practices and explain why they help to achieve key business objectives efficiently and effectively.

This approach has consistently paid off, and has afforded me the right to show more of what will allow great value to be drawn from a particularly powerful medium and start the inevitable evolution towards more interactive visual representations of abstract data - BI dashboards that help users to discover patterns, trends & outliers, show relationships, present the overview and the detail when needed, co-ordinate and motivate individuals and instigate real action that has a positive impact on the bottom line of a business.

Tuesday, 10 February 2009

Stephen Few Inspired Dashboard using SAP Business Objects Xcelsius 2008

Having been exposed to Dashboarding for a few years now, and having understood the mechanics of creating a dashboard in detail along with linking it into an overall Business Intelligence (BI) strategy, it was impossible to ignore that fact that there were some real design disasters that were out there.

I have created a few myself to be fair. The kind that when you see them results in a sharp intake of breath and raised eyebrows by just about anyone. Adding to that an inability to really understand what some of those dashboards were trying to tell the consumer made for a real problem that needed to be addressed.

So, for my inaugural blog and after reading Stephen Few's Information Dashboard Design, I was inspired to see if I could create something similar to his example Sales Dashboard using SAP Business Objects Xcelsius 2008.

Click the Play button to see it in action.

The data is mocked up and is not connected (but very easily could be) whilst the extra components; Sparklines and Bullet Charts, are drawn from Donald MacCormick's Blog at xcomponents.blogspot.com

In future Blogs I plan to share my thoughts on why some of the design methodologies present here are indeed very powerful, how I have seen them received in the sphere of BI that I work in, and that reception at a variety of different levels of BI Maturity found in the field.

I also plan to discuss my thoughts (and invite yours too) on the input to this field from the many shining lights in this area including Wayne W. Eckerson and of course, Edward Tufte.

Varik Torsteinsen, February 2009